Nick Lampson represented the Texas 9th congressional district from 1997 to 2005. He was one of five Democratic members of the Texas House delegation defeated in 2004 as the result of the mid-decade redistricting engineered by then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) in 2003.
Now Lampson is challenging Tom DeLay in the 22nd district.
As part of the redistricting, DeLay himself agreed to bring a substantial number of Democratic voters into the 22nd district. And that, along with DeLay’s mounting legal woes, has put Lampson in the lead in the most recent polls.
You can find more information about Lampson’s campaign at his campaign website. If you’re not familiar with his opponent, Tom DeLay, you can find out more about him at his campaign website or at the TPM Grand Ole Docket.
Yesterday, February 1st, we sat down with Lampson in New York for a brief interview …
TPM: Youâre running against Tom DeLay in the 22nd District of Texas â¦ And the backdrop to this race goes back to what happened in 2003 on a couple different levels: Itâs the reason youâre no longer in Congress; the reason now-former Majority Leader DeLay is in a slightly more Democratic district than he used to be; and itâs also the source of all these legal troubles that heâs having.
So, for our audience, can you tell us what that whole redistricting fight was about? What happened back in 2002, 2003?
Former Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX): Well, it was all about control of the House of Representatives. It was an effort on the part of Tom DeLay to strengthen the Republican majority. They thought they were going to have much larger growth than what ultimately happened. The net gain that they got came from the state of Texas, with those I think, six â five actually changed because of the elections and one person switched parties. So that was their net gain for the year.
What happened? A bunch of things â¦ What led up to it was an overreaching of the law and the use of corporate money that has led to indictments of some of DeLayâs employees as well as DeLay himself. They were using corporate money to help change the political makeup of the Texas legislature. They ultimately forced the redistricting.
82 % of the people in the state of Texas said that they were opposed to doing the redistricting in the middle of the decade. But they pushed hard enough that they made it happen.
TPM: And this is the summer of 2003?
Lampson: Yeah, thatâs right. We immediately challenged it. We took it to the courts. I think we won at the state district court level. We lost at the appellate level. And then it went to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court remanded it back — didnât make a decision, but remanded it back to the lower court — and said it needed to be looked at again. They made the same decision â said itâs got to go back to the Supreme Court. It did. They made the decision to take it. Oral arguments will be heard on March the 1st, and we expect a decision during the month of June â late May, early June, something of that sort.
TPM: So whatâs the problem with this exactly? States redistrict when they get a new censusâ¦
Lampson: Couple of things, maybe even more than a couple. One of them is that this is the first time that redistricting has been done in the middle of the decade. The Constitution doesnât say that you canât do it in the middle of the decade. But what it does say is that you do redistricting following a census, which happens at the end of the decade. And certainly the implication is that you donât do it at other times. You do it with as good information as you have about the location of population. Thatâs the purpose â of allocating the votes among the people of the country. So thatâs certainly one big thing, and I believe thatâs part of what the Supreme Court will make a statement about.
Gerrymandering. Thatâs been going on for a long, long, long time. Itâs designing districts for the purpose of helping one party or the other. My personal feeling about whatâs happened with this is that as weâve packed more Democrats into Democratic districts and packed more Republicans into Republican districts, we have polarized the nation. Because if you only have a primary, and you push people as far to the left or as far to the right as you can, then it becomes purely a matter of numbers in Congress. If you hold your numbers, then you can force through the policy of whatever you want to force.
And ultimately it leads to discomfort, to people not willing to work with each other. And consequently the compromise that was intended for our legislative body goes away. And thatâs part of what happened during the redistricting period.
What was the strongest delegation in the country — the Texas delegation — ended up not speaking to each other. And if you canât talk, if youâre so uncomfortable being around someone that you donât even want to speak to them, youâre certainly not going to sit down with them and debate real policy issues.
TPM: Now, this wasnât just in the abstract, trying to get more Republicans or more Democrats. There were a handful of Democrats who were the targets of this. So how did this effect you, and a few other, former members of the Texas Congressional delegation?
Lampson: Well, it gave us districts that we couldnât win, essentially. But I think most of us tried to look at it, not so much as what it would do to us, but what it was doing to our communities.
Communities of interest should be the focal point for us trying to do redistricting. You should be able to design a plan thatâs going to help people set goals for themselves and be able to achieve those goals for economic growth and for whatever other reasons. You donât want to have a district that is so diverse, for example, that you have extremely poor people as a small minority within a district that is very affluent, and you fix it so that they have no political say, because the likelihood of their having any of their concerns addressed becomes smaller.
So that was a big thing for me in my own mind. It wasnât about me. It was about my community. And I think our communities got very seriously hurt because of it.
TPM: Now, obviously, what people around the country know about is [Travis County District Attorney] Ronnie Earle, the fact that Tom DeLay was subsequently indicted. How does that fit in to what weâre talking about here? How does the legal news that people are hearing today fit in with what happened in 2003?
Lampson: The legal news that weâre hearing on Abramoff?
TPM: No, just Ronnie Earle and that whole series of indictments down there.
Lampson: It was a matter of using corporate money and washing it through, because corporate money is illegal in campaigns in Texas and federally.
They were able to get corporate dollars and send them to the National Republican Party, and from the Republican Party back down to be used in those elections. At least, thatâs the accusation.
And Ronnie Earle began to investigate this â it was $190,000 worth of money that was involved. He early on indicted John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, who were both former employees of Tom DeLay. And then later [he] indicted Tom DeLay himself.
Those three people are still involved with those suits. They have not been brought up yet, but Iâm assuming that itâs going to come up in the next few months or so, that trial will begin.
TPM: Now, our readers are across the country. Before a few months ago, theyâd never heard of Ronnie Earle. And thereâs a whole long backstory here. Tom DeLay says that Ronnie Earle is a partisan and the Democrats are out to take him down. People on the other side say you commit a crime, you get indicted.
Give us a sense of the backstory. Who is Ronnie Earle?
Lampson: I personally have never met Ronnie Earle. But I do know his record over a long time, because weâve been reading about it in Texas for a very long time. He has actually indicted and brought to trial and gained more convictions against Democrats than he has Republicans. Everybody seems to think that he is a person who will do whatâs right, who will do the right thing for Texas.
And in that context, you just have to consider that Tom DeLay says everything is about politics. When he was brought before the ethics committee, he said that he was innocent, that he didnât do what they were charging him with. And it was just a political witch hunt. Yet he got sanctioned. I think thatâs just his modus operandi, unfortunately.
Obviously, weâll wait and see what the courts do, and what kind of prosecution Ronnie Earle ultimately puts forth. But I donât think that it is fair in any way to say that heâs just a partisan hack and the only reason heâs doing this is to get Tom Delay because of his political affiliation.
TPM: Around the country there arenât many more polarizing figures than Tom DeLay. People either love him or hate him. Youâre running in this one district, the 22nd District of Texas. Itâs a different district now after that redistricting, but [DeLayâs] been there for what, about 20 years?
Lampson: 21 Years. At the end of this year, itâll be 22.
TPM: All right. What is the case youâre making to the people of the 22nd District why they should dump their congressman, who was until recently the most powerful guy in Congress? What is the case youâre making to them?
Lampson: Well, first of all, they deserve to have a representative who is making headlines for the right reasons — someone who will take a bipartisan approach to Washington and do the right thing for Texas and for that congressional district.
Itâs important that we work on issues that will make a difference for them â and Homeland Security, and fiscal responsibility, and education and health care are the kinds of issues that certainly I have worked on, and that I think is what the people, not just of the district, but of the nation, want us to be doing.
Tom DeLay had the opportunity to do that. But he spent his time doing something else, something different. I want to work on those issues every day that Iâm in Congress.
TPM: So what is the other thing â when you say âsomething different?â
Lampson: He was more about either his personal wealth, or his personal power, or his partyâs power. He clearly did some things that are — not just should be, but are being questioned. Whether or not something comes of it remains to be seen as they go through the process.
Standing up for sweatshops and sweatshop owners in the Marianas islands and then coming back following that trip with Jack Abramoff — and the involvement with Jack Abramoff out there — coming back to the floor of the House of Representatives and defending these actions on the floor of the House. Clearly that was something different from paying attention to the needs of the people of the 22nd Congressional District.
Using the lobbyists for his own personal benefit, taking a $56,000 golfing trip to Scotland. That is clearly something not in the best interest of the people of the 22nd Congressional District.
And then, just to pick another thing, the million dollars that was contributed by Russian oil people through a London law firm that came into a charity that DeLay had set up â ultimately some of the funding was used for the purchase of a building that he uses for his political activities. Those have to be reasonable questions to be asking.
Whether or not heâs guilty, thatâs for the courts and the ethics committees to decide. But the questions certainly ought to be asked. And certainly those were things that he was doing, rather than attending to the business of the 22nd Congressional District and the citizens of the United States of America.
He was too focused on his special interests.
TPM: Now, this election as a whole, for the Democrats as a whole â ethics and political corruption are going to be defining themes. National Democrats are trying to balance, âhow much are we against the amount of sleaze that the Republican majority has brought to Congressâ versus a positive agenda, whether thatâs health care, fiscal responsibility, on the foreign policy, front, whatever.
Now, youâre up there front and center with the man who literally and figuratively was the leader of what the Republican majority created. How are you balancing that? How are you balancing what you were just talking about — in terms of all these accusations of wrongdoing against Tom DeLay — versus the positive agenda â on policy issues, on health care, on fiscal responsibility?
Lampson: I want to make sure that this race is about those issues. I donât need to talk about Tom DeLay. And I try not to talk about Tom DeLay in the district. People are reading about those things that he was involved with. So I can concentrate on the legislation that I worked on when I was in the House of Representatives, my efforts on task forces that dealt with Homeland Security, with education and health care specifically, the work I did on creating the Congressional Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. If I can concentrate on those things, then I believe that I will win the confidence of the people to put me there.
Certainly there is a question of integrity that could come up in that comparison. And I think that I bring something different to the table. I hope I bring a different kind of openness and a willingness to look at the needs of the people of my district first.
TPM: Another question. Not as much as Tom DeLay, but over the last five years, President Bush nationally has become a very polarizing figure. His poll numbers are fairly low now, theyâre right around the low forties, forty percent, something like that.
Youâre running in his home state, in a district that is, I would say, at best a swing district. There are a lot of Republicans in the district â¦ A race like this against someone as prominent as Tom DeLay has sort of an in-district and a national dimension. So where are you on President Bush?
Lampson: Iâve been campaigning with him since, I think, 1992. I think that was the first time that I met him and started showing up at different places when we were campaigning for different offices.
I made a comment, right after his first election, before he was sworn into office when I was asked by a reporter whether or not he would be able to pull this divided congress together. And I said that I think that no matter what his interests were in trying to accomplish that, that there were other forces in play that would prevent him from doing it. And what I was referring to, and I even said the name at that time: Tom DeLay has caused such a polarization and such a lack of civility within our congress that regardless of what he was able to do, the president was able to do, they were going to stop him from doing it. And I believe that.
So I believe that there have been those who have, not intentionally, I donât believe they intentionally set out to divide it, but they certainly intentionally set out to win their issues. I think theyâre preventing him from accomplishing a lot of what perhaps he would like to be doing.
TPM: Preventing President Bush?
TPM: On a few basic issues â the President has been in office for five years â what would you say from your perspective are his biggest successes and his biggest mistakes in office on basic points of policy?
Lampson: Let me start with his mistakes. I think that certainly you have to consider that we still have problems with access to health care and Social Security in this country. Theyâre both huge problems for us. 46 million Americans donât have access to health care. And the bill that we passed — I didnât vote for it — but the Medicare bill that passed in 2003 was a piece of legislation that put the resources of the nation behind the pharmaceutical manufacturers more than it did the people who we were trying to help.
I think the foreign policy, the position, the reputation of the United States in the eyes of much of the rest of the world is significantly diminished and so I think you canât look at that positively.
Maybe from his perspective — and I voted for some of the tax cuts — from the Presidentâs perspective, heâd probably say that some of his biggest successes have been to pass the tax cutting legislation that they had. I believe very strongly that we need to have tax cuts, but to be put in an area where itâs going to help small businesses, where itâs going to help people who have less rather than those who have more.
I guess thatâs at first blush my answer to that.
TPM: Final question. Again, around the country, youâve seenâ¦ youâre running against Tom DeLay, whoâs the architect of whatâs really on the ballot in these midterm congressional elections: that political machine that he built, the way they were dealing with political money in D.C. with the lobbyists and so forth.
People around the country, they know lobbyists have been around forever. They know that thereâs a lot of political money around in Washington. And thereâs a tendency to say, âLook, everybody does it. This is business as usual.â
Do you think what Tom DeLay created over the last decade on Capitol Hill really is different? Is this something that people around the country and in the 22nd District should be concerned about, that thereâs something wrong in Washington? And if there is, what is it?
Lampson: There is something wrong in Washington. And not everybody is using the political money in the way that a few have used the political money.
We have to have a reform of our ethics rules. But itâs not just about reform. Itâs about making sure that we have the ability to enforce the laws that weâve put on the books. The ethics committee in Congress needs to be active, and it needs to have the independence to be able to act, regardless of what accusation is brought before them. Our Federal Election Commission and agencies that oversee some of the political activity certainly need to have the teeth and the enforcement capabilities that can make a difference.
TPM: Well, thank you very much for your time.
Lampson: My pleasure. Thank you.
To find out more about Lampson’s campaign, you can visit his campaign website or his entry at Wikipedia. If you’re not familiar with his opponent, Tom DeLay, you can find out more about him at his campaign website or at the TPM Grand Ole Docket.