In a Blue-Collar Texas District, Party Labels Lose Meaning

In the last weeks before election day, a Democratic strategist in Washington is ticking off a list of vulnerable House Republicans. When Steve Stockman's name pops up, he emits a sound somewhere between a cough and a giggle.

"If we can't beat this guy," he says, "we oughta be ashamed of ourselves."

Indeed, if Congressman Stockman loses to Democratic challenger Nick Lampson, he'll have plenty of excuses. His heavily unionized district of East Houston is a longtime Democratic stronghold, and labor and environmental groups are spending millions on critical ads here. In addition, Stockman endured some of the worst publicity on Capitol Hill in his freshman term.

But don't count him out just yet. Politics are changing in Texas' Ninth District, where oil refineries and chemical plants dot the loamy bottomland. Social issues are steadily gaining prominence, and most people don't seem to care much about party labels. At a meeting of the Chambers County Farm Bureau in this bayou town, Stockman spent a couple of hours cracking jokes with local pols over plates of fried catfish and banana pudding. It looked a lot like a coronation.

"It's not so much that this district is going Republican, it's just voting more conservative," says Farm Bureau president David Murrell. "Most of us live our lives conservative, and that's what we're looking for in a representative. Steve is nothing special.... He's what a congressman ought to be - a common Joe."

After two unsuccessful bids to oust 21-term Democrat Jack Brooks, Stockman finally prevailed in 1994, in part because of Mr. Brooks's support for the Clinton anticrime bill and its ban on assault weapons.

But months after arriving in Washington, Stockman's career was nearly swallowed by controversy. On the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, Stockman's congressional office received a cryptic fax describing the event. A time stamp indicated the fax had been sent before the explosion. When a Monitor investigation revealed that the fax had been sent by a Michigan militia group, Stockman became the focus of a media frenzy.

But despite this event and others, Stockman says he retained local support by coming back nearly every weekend and fine-tuning his congressional record for local effect.

In Congress, he authored bills to ease environmental regulations, curb immigration, stop the Mexican bailout, broaden freedoms for gun owners, eliminate congressional pensions, and declare that human life begins at conception.

To Washington insiders, it was the kind of record that a Republican representing a Democratic district should avoid at all costs. But Stockman sees it differently.

"My critics haven't spent much time in East Texas," he says. "The media went so far to demonize me, I think there was a backlash."

Political analysts here say that many longtime political strategists have failed to comprehend the profound shift in attitudes among Southern voters, even in blue-collar districts like Texas' Ninth.

"Texas has been getting more conservative for the last 20 years and labor has lost a lot of influence," says Bruce Drury, political scientist at Lamar University in Beaumont. "A lot of blue-collar workers have decided social issues are more important than economic ones."

Democratic challenger Mr. Lampson, a former county tax assessor, has been scoring points with undecided voters by hammering on Stockman's support for Republican plans to slow the growth of Medicare, renew tobacco subsidies, and cut education programs. The Democrat's opposition to gun control has largely erased the issue that helped Stockman defeat Brooks.

With the race too close to call, the winning margin could depend on turnout. Lampson could benefit from a coattail effect from President Clinton, while Stockman's conservative backers will probably vote no matter what. To them, there's no controversy at all.

"As far as being a right-wing antigovernment type person, he's not that at all," businessman Steve Hodges says. "He's just like most of us, he's tired of government in our pockets, and tired of government in our lives."

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