Wringing a Bell in Houston District

House Frosh Has Tough Primary

Posted March 2, 2004 at 6:12pm

With less than a week remaining before Texas voters head to the polls, the 9th Congressional district is playing host to a surprisingly competitive Democratic primary race between Rep. Chris Bell and former Houston Justice of the Peace Al Green.

Bell, who currently holds the 25th district, is seeking a second term in the new 9th district, which takes in roughly one-third of his old territory.

But fueled by more than $300,000 in personal donations and the backing of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Green is making a strong push in the race’s final days, and Democratic strategists believe he could topple the freshman incumbent.

The Houston-area district, which was created by Republican legislators in 2003, is extremely diverse, with blacks making up 36.5 percent of the voting age population, Hispanics 30 percent, whites 20 percent and Asian-Americans 15 percent.

The 9th’s black population was increased roughly 14 percentage points over Bell’s old 25th district, while the white vote was reduced by nearly 17 points, according to 2001 Census figures.

It was intentionally drawn to increase the chances of electing a black individual to Congress, and by some estimates blacks will comprise nearly two-thirds of the electorate next week.

Because of the voting power of this group, both Bell and Green are working hard to court key constituencies in the black community and cast themselves as the candidate best able to represent their interests.

Bell is touting his support from former Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) as well as the members of the Democratic leadership.

Green is backed by Waters, herself a former CBC chair, and has received a $5,000 check from the CBC’s political action committee.

Green is also a former head of the NAACP’s Houston branch, a post he held for a decade.

Paul Brathwaite, executive director of the CBC, said the caucus as a whole has not endorsed any candidate in any race so far in the 2004 cycle and has no plans to wade into the 9th district primary contest.

Brathwaite added that the CBC PAC is made up of several CBC Members as well as a number of private individuals, but is not reflective of the Caucus as a whole.

Eric Burns, a spokesman for Bell’s campaign, said Waters’ endorsement of Green was the result of a “personal relationship” and would be inconsequential in the race.

“I am not sure how seriously voters in Houston are going to take a Congresswoman from California,” he said.

“Congressman Bell has a close working relationship with the members of the CBC including [CBC Chairman] Elijah Cummings [D-Md.],” Burns added.

Brathwaite confirmed that Bell and Cummings have a “good relationship.”

Green did not return a call seeking comment.

Democratic sources familiar with the race but not aligned with either candidate said Tuesday that Green has little to no organization but may benefit from a hot state House primary race between Rep. Ron Wilson and state Board of Education member Alma Allen; both candidates are black.

Wilson allied himself with state House Speaker Tom Craddick (R) in the last legislative session and was one of the few House Democrats who did not flee the state to rob Republican legislators of a quorum in their attempts to redraw the state’s Congressional lines.

Observers believe Wilson’s role in redistricting will drive black turnout against him, which could give a turnout boost to Green’s campaign.

Green seems poised to match Bell in spending in the contest’s final days as well.

Through Feb. 18, Bell had raised $675,000 for the race, spent $589,000 and had $193,000 in the bank.

Green had brought in $279,000 at that time — $204,000 from his own pocket — and had $125,000 on hand.

Green gave another $100,000 to his campaign on Feb. 27.

Because of the prohibitively expensive nature of television advertising in Houston, Bell is currently running ads only on radio. The spots are produced by Steve Murphy of Murphy Putnam Media and tout Bell’s “A” rating from the NAACP and role as a Democratic whip.

This is not the first time Bell has run against a black candidate in a district where minorities make up a significant chunk of the primary vote.

In 2002, he faced off against then Houston City Councilman Carroll Robinson (D) in a runoff for the 25th district.

Touting the support of then Houston mayor Lee Brown (D), who is black, Bell led Robinson in the primary by 9 points.

In the runoff, Bell won a solid 54 percent to 46 percent victory.

Robinson is now supporting Green’s candidacy.

Bell is not the only Texas Democrat facing a serious primary challenge in a newly-drawn district with significant minority population.

In the new 25th district, which stretches from the Austin suburbs all the way south to the Mexican border, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D) is facing former District Judge Leticia Hinojosa, who is Hispanic.

Sixty-three percent of the 25th’s voting age population is Hispanic, the fifth highest of any of the state’s 32 Congressional districts. The other four are held by Hispanic Democrats.

Doggett moved from the 10th district, which he has held since 1994, after GOP lawmakers made the seat a stronghold for their party. He is considered a favorite in the race.