This Chron story about the primary challenges to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee goes out of its way to try to find parallels to Jackson Lee’s own successful primary election of 1994. A little too far, I think.
The district looks different: Its 228 square miles, mostly in the center of Houston, were reshaped in 2003 at the behest of Texas Republicans.
Its voters are different: African-Americans account for 40 percent of the eight-term Democrat’s estimated 652,000 constituents now, compared with 51 percent 16 years ago. Hispanics have doubled their share of the population to 36 percent. And the political power centers have shifted from the inner city churches to the neighborhoods like Windsor Village that ring Houston’s central core.
What’s more, the way candidates reach voters is different: When Jackson Lee first ran for Congress, she appeared with African-American ministers. On the day Houston City Councilman Jarvis Johnson declared his intent to replace Jackson Lee, his first interview was a roundtable with liberal Houston bloggers.
Then there’s the volatile political climate of 2010, similar in many ways to the 1994 wave that swept away three dozen incumbents, including Jackson Lee’s predecessor, Craig Washington. Just last week, two senior Democrats, Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, abandoned their re-election plans after finding themselves trailing in early polls.
Okay, as someone who has lived in CD18 since Mickey Leland was its representative, this is quite the stretch. It’s true that Rep. Jackson Lee has gotten some bad press recently. One can argue, as I’m sure Johnson and Roberts will, that she’s lost touch with the district. But Craig Washington spent the better part of 1993 dealing with stories about how he was paying his ex-wife’s rent with campaign funds, which were also allegedly being used to help him out of personal bankruptcy; and about how he missed a committee hearing that he himself had called for to attend a charity golf event; and how his attendance record was the fourth worst in all of Congress. To put it mildly, there’s nothing remotely like that in Jackson Lee’s record.
The Dodd and Dorgan comparison is equally flimsy. The reason for Dodd dropping out (lousy poll numbers that stem from his abortive 2008 Presidential run and a sweetheart deal from Countrywide Financial) and Dorgan dropping out (popular Governor John Hoeven decided to enter the race) are very different. Other than a general narrative of “2010 is likely going to be a rough year for Democrats” – which doesn’t have much relevance in a Democratic primary – it’s hard to see what that has to do with Jackson Lee’s situation. I at least am not aware of any polls that suggest Jackson Lee is in any danger. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t, but it would be nice to have some objective data before we start comparing her to incumbents that actually are on their way out.
Finally, while it’s true that CD18 looks different now than it did in 1994, Jackson Lee has won re-election three times since the 2003 re-redistricting. It’s not like she has to re-introduce herself to the voters, who showed her plenty of love in 2008. Again, I’m certainly not saying she can’t lose – Jarvis Johnson represents the strongest challenge she’s faced since 1994, and with two opponents, it’s that much harder to get a majority. What I am saying is that if she does lose, it won’t have anything to do with the reasons why Craig Washington lost to her all those years ago, and it won’t have anything to do with the politics of Connecticut or North Dakota. As is often the case in a primary, it’ll be a referendum on her, and she’ll win or lose on who she is and what she has or has not done while in office. That’s the story that we should be focusing on.