HOUSTON -- The year's congressional elections begin here Tuesday about where they left off two years ago, with an anti-incumbent campaign threatening a House member whose opponent accuses him of being untrustworthy and out of touch.
In the state's hottest congressional primary, Houston Councilwoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D) has pushed two-term Rep. Craig A. Washington (D) to the brink of defeat by disparaging his record of missed votes in the House and problems in his personal life, including financial bankruptcy. Her campaign materials promise the black majority district "representation you can be proud of."
The vigor of Lee's campaign has surprised Democratic analysts in part because Congressional Black Caucus members such as Washington traditionally have faced few serious challenges and enjoyed a high reelection rate. Since the Black Caucus was formed in 1970, fewer than a half dozen of its members have been defeated, and two of those losses came in 1992. Both Lee and Washington are black, so race is not an issue.
"One thing it shows is black politicians can be held to the same kind of standards as other politicians," said Sanders Anderson Jr., a political science professor at Texas Southern University. "Black politicians have to do the same kinds of things -- such as constituent services. They have to pay attention to their district."
While Lee has relaunched the anti-incumbent theme of 1992, Houston's three competitive congressional contests have all focused on the North American Free Trade Agreement and crime, both of which have been more prominent as issues than health care.
After Congress passed the trade pact last November, labor leaders vowed to get even with Democrats who usually depend on trade unions for campaign contributions and volunteers but who voted for NAFTA. In Houston, however, business leaders have set out to punish two NAFTA opponents -- Washington and freshman Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.) -- by helping to finance their challengers. Lee, for instance, raised $170,000 in two weeks with the help of a local oil executive.
"This is teach-Craig-a-lesson time," Washington said.
"They're teaching me the wrong lesson. I'm going to get reelected without them," Green said, more confidently.
Although crime abated in the nation's fourth largest city after Houston Mayor Bob Lanier expanded the police force, violence has been the top issue in area congressional campaigns. Green's opponent in a mostly Hispanic district, Houston Councilman Ben Reyes (D), has condemned him for voting against the Brady handgun control bill. Washington has emphasized crime prevention, an approach he has touted on the House Judiciary Committee and one that Lee says she also supports.
Crime has been even more of an issue in a crowded Democratic primary in the upscale, more suburban district that Rep. Michael A. Andrews (D) is leaving to run for the Senate. Carrin Patman, whose father and grandfather served in Congress, has led candidates' calls for tougher punishment of violent offenders. Like some House Republicans, she advocates incentives to get states to build more prisons and curb parole. One of Patman's campaign fliers shows a bare-chested man being lifted into the back of an ambulance and warns voters, "You could be next."
David A. Jones of People First Democrats, a group of former Clinton-Gore campaign volunteers, warned that such emotional appeals could turn off Democratic primary voters, who tend to be liberals.
"These Democratic candidates ... don't have to keep me-tooing the Republicans on crime," Jones said. "Everybody thinks they're going to be sheriff when they get to Congress."
Just as the 1992 elections brought record numbers of racial minorities and women to Congress, the diversity of lawmakers remains an underlying issue in Houston.
Lee has appealed to female voters, who predominated among her vocal supporters at a debate Friday night. Hispanics have tried to unite behind Reyes's fourth attempt to wrest the new Hispanic majority seat from Green, who is white. In 1992, Green and Reyes met in the Democratic primary, a disputed runoff and a court-ordered runoff. Democratic analysts regard Green as a favorite to retain the seat because of lingering divisions and low participation rates among Hispanic voters.
Women are among leading candidates in both primary races to succeed Andrews. Among the Democrats, Patman faces former legislator Paul Colbert and former local party chairman Ken Bentsen, nephew of Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. Former Houston councilwoman Beverley Clark has tried to appeal to Ross Perot supporters. A party analyst predicted Colbert would face Patman or Bentsen in a runoff, required if no candidate wins at least half the vote.
In the Republican primary, Dolly Madison McKenna, the 1992 GOP nominee, faces political newcomer Eugene Fontenot, a doctor who has largely financed his campaign out of pocket.
But the congressional race in Texas that has captured the most attention is Lee's attempt to portray Washington, a political maverick respected on Capitol Hill as a skilled debater and Black Caucus leader, as just another incumbent who went to Congress and grew inattentive to both his personal affairs and the district's.
Lee, 44, frequently cites Washington's absence on 24 percent of House votes last year and his opposition to NAFTA, the space station and Superconducting Super Collider -- popular legislation in Texas. "I clearly think he's out of touch," she said.
Washington said he missed only inconsequential votes and that his personal problems have not affected his work in Congress.
In some ways, Washington, 52, makes an atypical incumbent. Although he sits on the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, he did not compile a large campaign chest to scare off potential opponents. Nor does he have a political consultant, buy TV campaign ads, send many franked newsletters to constituents or apologize for not bringing home pork-barrel projects. He does claim credit for a list of $265 million in federal grants last year, mostly for educational institutions in Houston.
"It's nothing you can brag about that people can see," Washington said. "It's not a big, juicy pig."
Lee frequently suggests she would be a caring figure who caters to constituents in the manner of Washington's predecessors -- Barbara Jordan and the late Mickey Leland. Washington sees himself as a national black leader like Jordan and Leland, and he flatly refuses to slap the backs of constituents or "the downtown boys," the city's business leaders. Voters have to decide, he said, what kind of representative they want.
"Some politicians will say or do anything to get your vote," Washington told listeners during Friday's debate at Texas Southern University. "I won't."