Swing Vote

Think all politics is local? In the 5th District, think again.

Sometime in the next six weeks, you'll almost certainly see TV commercials with Regina Montoya-Coggins doing all sorts of touchy-feely things. Flip the channel, and you'll probably see the same sort of commercial, but with Pete Sessions doing the hugging this time.

Don't know who Sessions and Montoya-Coggins are? Don't especially care? Doesn't really matter, because each of them has some $1 million to spend to make you care. Montoya-Coggins, a Democrat, and Sessions, the Republican incumbent, are running for the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas' 5th District, which includes parts of Dallas and its eastern and southeastern suburbs. The two candidates will soon be as familiar as any TV huckster selling long distance or auto insurance--even to the vast majority of people in the Dallas area who don't live in the district.

That's because, given the way congressional campaigns are run today, a local race for Congress is no longer very local, and nothing illustrates this better than the 5th District. The issues aren't all that local, the money financing the campaign isn't especially local, and the district was drawn so it wouldn't be local. That the 5th is a swing district this year, one of a dozen or so across the country that the Democrats have a chance to win to retake control of the House, makes it even less local, and that's not easy to do.

Regina Montoya-Coggins and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions' race could determine which party rules the House.
AP/Wide World Photo
Regina Montoya-Coggins and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions' race could determine which party rules the House.

"Time was when the Senate concerned itself with national issues and the House concerned itself with local ones," says Wendell Cochran, who has studied campaigns and campaign financing for almost 30 years and who today teaches at American University in Washington and oversees the school's campaign finance Web site. "And I don't think there is any question that the House is now going that way too [toward dealing with national issues]. What you're seeing in Texas is not all that unusual."

In the old days, which ended about the time Richard Nixon fled the White House, campaigns for the House of Representatives were about getting a federal building for the district, making sure residents received their share of federal highway funds, prodding the post office about poor service, and answering constituents' passport questions. Campaigning consisted of yard signs and church suppers, and it was possible to walk the district, knock on doors, and make an impression with a sizable number of voters.

That, in fact, is how Jim Mattox and John Bryant, two Democrats, represented the 5th District for more than two decades. At that time, the district went from East Dallas, Pleasant Grove, and Mesquite through East Texas. But when the Texas Legislature reapportioned the state after the 1990 census, they took out part of East Dallas, most of Mesquite and a chunk of East Texas and replaced them with portions of Uptown and Turtle Creek, as well as a seven-county area stretching 150 miles south from Athens to Bryan. This made it kind of hard to walk the district.

Bryant took one look at the new boundaries, figured he had a better chance of beating Phil Gramm for the U.S. Senate in 1996 (he didn't even make it out of the primary), and retired from the House. That's when Sessions got the seat, defeating a civil servant and moderate Democrat named John Pouland. Sessions, incidentally, had lost to Bryant in 1994 in the old district, coming within a couple of points of pulling off a huge upset.

He hasn't been challenged much since then, thanks to poorly financed competition and the district's makeup, which was designed to shelter a Republican. This may seem odd, since the Texas Legislature is still nominally controlled by Democrats, but it's all part of what the legendary political scientist Mel Brooks said in Blazing Saddles: "Gentlemen, we've got to protect our phony baloney jobs!"

Gerrymandered districts proliferate throughout Texas, and the 5th is far from the worst. The goal of gerrymandering is to protect incumbents (something that cuts across party lines) and to make sure Texas has enough minority representation to keep the Justice Department from meddling. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, for example, whose 30th District is centered in Oak Cliff, got several liberal and minority parts of Bryant's old 5th District.

Local issues become less important in a congressional election. What local issues do residents of Buffalo, Athens, or Mexia share with someone in Lakewood, Lake Highlands, or Turtle Creek? School vouchers? Hardly. Crime? No. Says Rick Wamre, whose magazine group in East Dallas, Lake Highland, and the Park Cities sponsored the only joint interview of the campaign thus far: "We tried to find questions to ask them about local issues, but a local issue to us here in Dallas isn't an issue at all to someone in Palestine. It's kind of unfortunate, really, because we're local publications, they're local politicians, and we all wound up sitting around a table talking about the environment and health care."

Becca Sharp, press secretary for the Montoya-Coggins campaign, suggests that might be a false distinction. For example, while such issues as health care for the elderly are national in scope, they directly affect the 5th.

"When your neighbor is choosing between a loaf of bread or arthritis medicine, that's absolutely local," she says.

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