Tag Archives: Larry Combest

Gerrymandering: sometimes it works!

A blog item I just posted reminded me of one of the few regrets I collected while serving as a journalist for nearly four decades.

I remembered a C-SPAN segment I was honored to do regarding the former 19th Congressional District representative, Republican Larry Combest and the sprawling district he was elected to represent in 1984.

My regret? I didn’t resist my boss’s dogged insistence that Amarillo be “made whole” by the Texas Legislature. You see, the Democrats who controlled the 1991 Legislature split Amarillo into two congressional districts during its once-a-decade redistricting ritual. The idea was to peel off Democratic voters in Potter County to protect the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Bill Sarpalius.

The Amarillo Globe-News went ballistic over that arrangement. It hated the notion of the city being split into two districts, represented by a Democrat, the other by a Republican.

Sarpalius got re-elected in 1992. Then something happened in 1994 that no one foresaw when the Legislature gerrymandered the city’s representation: Sarpalius lost to Republican Mac Thornberry, who happened to be Combest’s former chief of staff.

Do you know what that meant? It meant Amarillo would have two members of Congress from the same political party — which now controlled Congress — representing its interests.

I arrived at my post at the Globe-News in January 1995, the same week Thornberry took office.

But still the newspaper insisted on redrawing the lines and putting Amarillo into a single congressional district. I went along with the publisher’s insistence on that change. For the life me as I look back on that time, I must’ve had rocks in my head for not arguing against it.

Thornberry and Combest comprised a sort of one-two punch for Amarillo. Thornberry’s district covered Potter County, Combest’s included Randall County. I get the difficulty when two House members from opposing parties were representing the city. But after the 1994 election that all changed.

Did the two GOP House members always vote the way I preferred? No. That’s not the point. My point is that our city could depend on two elected members of Congress doing our community’s bidding when the moments presented themselves.

Eventually, the Legislature did as we kept insisting they do. They redrew the boundaries and put the 19th District much farther south and put all of Amarillo into the 13th.

Combest resigned from the House in 2002. Thornberry is still in office. I’m trying to assess what actual, tangible benefit Thornberry has brought to the city all these years later.

Well, you know what they say about hindsight. It all looks clearer looking back than it does in the moment.

Recalling a long, lost journalism memory

I discovered something on the Internet I didn’t know even existed. To be candid, it blew me away to find it. So much so that I want to share it here.

https://www.c-span.org/video/?77319-1/texas-19th-congressional-district

The quality of the video isn’t great, but it’s watchable if you’re interested.

C-SPAN is the network that appeals mainly to political junkies. I am one of them. The call letters stand for “Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network.” Need I say more?

I enjoy the network and its utterly unbiased presentation of the discussion of the issues of the day. Its founder, Brian Lamb, is legendary in his insistence that his on-air reporters steer clear of any bias.

In 1996, I was new to the Texas Panhandle. I had started a job a year earlier as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News. C-SPAN was conducting a nationwide tour of every congressional district in the United States.

The network called me and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed for a discussion of the 19th Congressional District and its representative, Lubbock Republican Larry Combest.

“Sure,” I said. Here’s the deal, though: I had to study up on the 19th  District, learn enough about it to talk intelligently about it for broadcast on the air.

C-SPAN’s series featured a “school bus” that came to each congressional district. It contained a traveling camera crew. A reporter asked me questions; a cameraman video recorded it. The interview lasted about 30 minutes at the AGN offices in downtown Amarillo. The finished product was cut down to about three minutes on the air.

It was a fascinating “teachable moment” for this newcomer to the Texas Panhandle. It presented me with one of the more incredible experiences of my journalism career. I enjoyed doing it immensely.

In 1996, Amarillo was divided into two congressional districts. Combest represented the19th, which included Randall County. The northern portion of Amarillo was represented by the 13th District and its then-freshman congressman, Republican Mac Thornberry.

I honestly cannot remember who C-SPAN recruited to talk on the air about the 13th District; hey, it was a long time ago.

This is just a nugget that I wanted to share with you, given the many miles the world has traveled over the past two-plus decades since this segment aired in the delivery of news and commentary to the public.

Political ‘leaders’ too often become ‘tyrants’

Jay Leeson, writing for Texas Monthly’s Burka Blog, wonders how Texas legislators can stiff their constituents in favor of an agenda being pushed by the state’s second-leading politician, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

He wonders if state senators, for instance, are working for the people who they represent back home or for the lieutenant governor.

Implicit in his essay is the question about whether Lt. Gov. Patrick is running the Texas Senate — a body over which he presides — with too heavy a hand.

Read the essay here.

Indeed, we see this developing all too often. Politicians attain positions of power thanks to the votes of their fellow politicians and then decide that their voice is more important than anyone else’s. It’s a bipartisan affliction that crosses party lines.

A notable Texas politician, Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson, was famous for corralling fellow senators, getting right into their faces and “persuading” them to vote for a bill of his choosing … or else pay the consequences.

Another brief story involves another Texas pol, former Republican U.S. Rep. Larry Combest of Lubbock, who once refused in the 1990s to support legislation dramatically overhauling the nation’s farm program. House Speaker Newt Gingrich wanted him to support it, and pressured him to do so. Combest refused because he said it would do harm to the West Texas farmers and ranchers who sent him to Congress in the first place.

This dance is occurring now in Washington, D.C. Republican leaders want to overhaul health care laws. They have developed an alternative to the Affordable Care Act that has been getting some seriously angry reviews among voters in congressional districts and states all over the country. Senators and House members are hearing about it, too.

Do they vote for their constituents’ interests or the interests of the party leadership?

Democrats exerted the same pressure on their congressional members when they pushed for passage of the ACA in 2010. The law was unpopular out here in the land, but Democratic congressional leaders insisted on approving it. The ACA’s fortunes have turned; Americans want to keep it and they favor it over the alternative that Republicans are trying to shove down our throats.

But GOP congressional leaders won’t be persuaded by silly notions about public opinion or the principle of representing the desires of the “bosses,” voters who elect them — or who can unelect them if they are given the chance.

Political leadership — whether in Austin or Washington — is vulnerable to those who turn it into tyranny.

Who works for whom in Washington?

Donald Trump thought he could strong-arm congressional Republicans into doing his bidding.

He wanted them to enact a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. GOP lawmakers — namely the more conservative members of their caucus — weren’t budging. Why? I believe it’s because they knew something that the president doesn’t understand: They work for their constituents; they do not work for the president.

When I heard today that Trumpcare went down in flames, I flashed back to another time, in an another era, when another lawmaker decided to stick it in the ear of his congressional leadership.

I recalled former U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, a Republican from Lubbock, who once defied the speaker of the House of Representatives who wanted Combest to back some legislation that he just couldn’t support.

It occurred in the late 1990s. Combest represented a largely rural West Texas congressional district that ran from southern Amarillo all the way to the Permian Basin.

GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich was pushing something called Freedom to Farm, a dramatic overhaul of national farm policy. If memory serves, Freedom to Farm would have drastically reduced the amount of subsidies the government gave to farmers and ranchers to help them through difficult years. We get those kinds of seasons in West Texas, as you might know. Drought has this way of inhibiting dryland farmers’ ability to harvest crops; such a lack of moisture also restricts the amount of grain that ranchers use to feed their livestock.

Gingrich pushed Combest hard to back Freedom to Farm. Combest resisted. He finally voted against Freedom to Farm.

Combest was left to remind the speaker that he didn’t work for congressional leaders. He answered to the farmers and ranchers who elected him to Congress. These folks back home would suffer from Freedom to Farm and Combest wasn’t about to let them down.

I applauded Combest at the time, remarking in an editorial — and also in a couple of signed columns — that he showed guts by defying his congressional leadership and standing up for his constituents.

Congressional Republicans today don’t work for the president. They answer to their constituents at home, the folks whose votes upon which these lawmakers depend. They hate the GOP alternative to the ACA and let their congressmen and women know it in no uncertain terms. Democrats hate it, too.

That is how representative democracy works, Mr. President.

Just ask Larry Combest.

Regretting a stance on Amarillo’s congressional alignment

Every now and then, as I wander through Amarillo, I encounter people I knew in my previous life as a journalist and with whom I maintain friendly relations to this day.

I ran into one of them today. He is former Bushland School Superintendent John Lemons. We chatted about this and that, about people we know and how they’re doing these days. Then the conversation turned to an old friend of his, former U.S. Rep. Larry Combest.

Our discussion pivoted to a position the Amarillo Globe-News had taken while I was working as editorial page editor of the newspaper: It dealt with congressional reapportionment.

I told John that I have grown to regret a position the paper had taken, and which I had expressed through editorials published on the matter. The G-N argued for the “reunification” of Amarillo into a single congressional district.

A brief history is in order.

***

The 1991 Texas Legislature, which was dominated by Democrats, redrew the state’s congressional districts. Seeking to protect Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Sarpalius, the Legislature split Amarillo in half: Potter County would be represented by Sarpalius in the 13th Congressional District; Randall County’s congressman would be Republican Larry Combest.

The realignment outraged the G-N at the time. They paper began calling for the city to be made whole by being put back solely into the 13th District.

The gerrymandering worked through the 1992 election, as Sarpalius was re-elected to his third term in Congress; so was Combest. The paper kept up its drumbeat for unification. The city’s interests were being split between men of competing political parties, the G-N said.

Then came the 1994 election. Sarpalius ran into the Republican juggernaut. A young congressional staffer named Mac Thornberry defeated him. Thus, the city would be represented by two congressmen from the same party.

I arrived at my post in January 1995 — and the paper kept hammering away at the unification theme. Bring the city together, we said. I scratched my head a bit over that one. I couldn’t quite understand why we were so upset with divided representation, given that both Reps. Combest and Thornberry were of the same party. They were rowing in unison, singing off the same page, reciting the same mantra … blah, blah, blah.

I told Lemons today that the city was able to “double its pleasure, double its fun” with two members of Congress representing its interests. One of them, Combest, held a leadership position on the House Agriculture Committee.

But we kept it up.

I told my pal John Lemons today I regret not pushing my boss at the time to rethink the notion that Amarillo needed to be made whole.

So … now I’m sharing my regret here.

I had a wonderful — and moderately successful — career in daily print journalism. However, it wasn’t regret-free.

An end to gerrymandering? Sure, let’s do it

250px-TravisCountyDistricts

The Democratic Governors Association wants to back President Obama’s call for an end to gerrymandering.

I’m all for it. However, it’s not because the Democrats are for it. The practice has been used for political purposes since the beginning of the Republic. By both major parties.

The president was correct in his final State of the Union speech to demand an end to the practice of drawing districts to create a desired political outcome.

It’s just that Republicans who control most state legislators these days have turned the practice into an art form. Some of the congressional and state legislative districts in Texas, for example, simply defy all forms of logic.

There used to be a term used to describe how these districts should be constructed. It’s called “community of interest.” It means that all the residents of a particular district should have issues in common. They should be primarily rural or urban in nature. That’s how it’s supposed to go in theory at least.

But some of the districts in this state snake their way around street corners, winding their way from, say, Austin all the way to the Rio Grande Valley. What does someone living in, say, Laredo have in common with someone living in suburban Travis County?

Nothing!

There once was a time when Democrats ran the show in Texas. The 1991 Texas Legislature, thus, redrew congressional districts and created something of a monstrosity right here in the Panhandle. They split Amarillo in half, putting the Potter County part of the city into the 13th Congressional District and the Randall County portion into the 19th Congressional District.

The Legislature’s purpose? It was to protect Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Sarpalius’s seat in Congress. The Legislature peeled off enough Republicans living in Randall County and put them into a district served by Republican U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, who lived in Lubbock.

The notion worked through one election cycle; Sarpalius was re-elected in 1992. Then came the 1994 Contract With America election. Sarpalius got beat by Republican Mac Thornberry.

There went the notion of protecting a Democrat.

The principle of gerrymandering really does stink, no matter who’s doing it.

There ought to be some rhyme or reason to the districts we create after every census is taking. The way it’s done now is meant to keep power in the hands of whichever party is in control.

 

C-SPAN worked miracles with this spot

cspan_bus

I want to share a moment regarding my one direct contact with the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network . . . aka C-SPAN.

I’ve already sung the praises of Brian Lamb, the founder of the one national network that covers politics and policy without a hint of bias.

Take another look.

But the folks who put together their video presentations are masters of editing, cutting, pasting and making subjects look a whole lot smarter than they really are. In my case, that’s not all that difficult.

I arrived in the Texas Panhandle in January 1995 to take my post as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News.

That spring, C-SPAN embarked on a project called the “School Bus Tour.” It was sending a yellow bus to every congressional district in the United States. All 435 of them would get a visit from the C-SPAN school bus. Its intent was to educate viewers on the members of Congress representing their constituents living in each of those districts.

The 1991 Texas Legislature had gerrymandered the congressional map in Texas to give Amarillo two House members. The 13th Congressional District comprised the northern portion of the city; the 19th District comprised the southern portion.

The lines were drawn that way to protect the Democrat — Bill Sarpalius — who represented the 13th District. Democrats controlled the Legislature back then, so they sought to rig the lineup to protect their own. The tactic worked until the 1994 election, when Republican Mac Thornberry upset Sarpalius.

But the 19th District remained strongly Republican and was represented by U.S. Rep. Larry Combest of Lubbock.

C-SPAN called one day and wanted to know if I would be willing to be interviewed by the network about the 19th District. I was to talk about Combest and the district he had represented for the past decade.

Holy crap! I thought. I didn’t know much about the district, or about Combest. I was brand new here. I’d lived for the 11 previous years in the Golden Triangle region of Texas, which was represented in the House by Democrats Jack Brooks of Beaumont and Charlie Wilson of Lufkin.

I accepted the offer, then cracked the books to learn more about the 19th Congressional District and about Rep. Combest.

C-SPAN’s school bus crew met me at the newspaper office one Saturday morning and I talked for about 30 minutes or so with a camera rolling. I stuttered, stammered, paused, stopped-and-started my way through it. Hey, I’m not a TV guy.

I was frightened by the prospect of how it would look on TV. The producer assured me, “Don’t worry. You did just fine. We’ll take good care of you.”

Well, they shot their B-roll video, showing scenes of feed lots, ranch land, wind mills and such from around the sprawling district, which stretched from Amarillo all the way to Lubbock, about 120 miles south of us.

They told me when the segment would air.

I waited for it. Sure enough, they managed to make me sound a whole lot more polished than I really am.

What’s more — and this is the real beauty of this kind of skill — they preserved the essence of every comment I made. There was not a single phrase that was aired during the three-minute segment that was out of context or didn’t convey my intended message.

I would have a similar experience later, during the 2008 presidential campaign, with National Public Radio. NPR wanted to interview two journalists about the state of that campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain. I learned once again about the talent and skill it takes to edit someone’s spoken words while preserving the integrity of what one says.

Believe me, it’s a remarkable skill, indeed.

 

Gerrymandering not always a bad thing

Whether to gerrymander a congressional district, that is the question.

I’ve been stewing about this for years, believe it or not. It’s not that I don’t have many important things to ponder, but this one has been stuck in my craw ever since I landed in Amarillo back in January 1995.

The term “gerrymander” is named after Elbridge Gerry, who served as vice president during the James Madison administration. It’s come to identify the practice of drawn governmental boundaries in such a way as to protect certain political parties. It’s been vilified as a form of political protectionism.

Is it always a bad thing? I submit that it isn’t always a negative.

Consider what happened to Amarillo back in the early 1990s.

The 1991 Texas Legislature gerrymandered the 13th and 19th congressional districts in a way that split Amarillo in two. Potter County was included in the 13th district; Randall County was drawn into the 19th. The 13th was represented at that time by Democrat Bill Sarpalius; the 19th by Republican Larry Combest. The 1991 Legislature — which was dominated by Democrats — intended to protect Democratic members of Congress. Legislators believed that by carving out the Potter County portion of Amarillo into that district — which contained a good number of Democratic voters — that Sarpalius would be protected.

I came to work as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News, which was in the middle of a furious editorial campaign to put Amarillo back into a single congressional district.

What happened between 1991 and the time of my arrival in 1995? Well, Sarpalius was re-elected to the House in 1992, but in 1994, he was upset by upstart Republican Mac Thornberry, who at the time was serving as Larry Combest’s congressional chief of staff. Sarpalius wasn’t the only Democratic incumbent to lose that year, as that was the election featuring the GOP’s Contract With America.

Interesting, eh? Thornberry took office in 1995, which then meant that Amarillo was represented by two Republican members of Congress. Back when one was a Democrat and one was a Republican, you could count on Combest and Sarpalius voting opposite each other. Their votes and their constituencies canceled each other out. With Thornberry and Combest serving together in Congress, well, you had a two-for-one deal. Both men sang from the same sheet. You got two votes for Amarillo, even though they represented separate congressional districts.

Still, the newspaper kept beating the drum for a reuniting of Amarillo into a single congressional district. Our wish would be granted after the 2000 census and the 2001 Legislature returned all of Amarillo to the 13th district.

I look back, though, a bit wistfully on the time when Amarillo had two members of Congress looking after its interests. Combest was by the far the senior member of the two. He was a big hitter on the House Agriculture Committee and served on the Select Committee on Intelligence. He was a frequent visitor to Amarillo, where he maintained a district office.

I never challenged my publisher’s desire to throw over one of our two congressmen at the time. I wish now I had raised the issue with him.

My thought now is that gerrymandering, while it generally is meant as a tool to do harm, actually can produce an unintended positive consequence for a community — as it did in Amarillo.

Cruz doesn’t work for party bosses?

I cannot believe I’m about to write these next five words: I agree with Ted Cruz.

Sen. Cruz told CNN he doesn’t work for “party bosses.” He said he works for Texans who elected him to the U.S. Senate and that he doesn’t care that Senate Republican elders are mad at him for the tactics he used to gum up the government.

http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/10/20/cruz-to-cnn-i-dont-work-for-the-party-bosses-in-washington/?hpt=po_c1

The fact that I agree that he shouldn’t care what Senate senior statesmen think of him doesn’t mean I support what he did to keep the government shut down and to prevent the Congress from increasing the nation’s debt limit. I still think he’s a loudmouth and a self-serving showman. His own political future remains his key interest, in my view.

His statement about not working for party bosses reminds me a bit of what another Texas Republican did some years ago to stick it in the eye of his party bosses.

U.S. Rep. Larry Combest was a key member of the House Agriculture Committee. However, he disliked the way House Speaker Newt Gingrich was pushing something called Freedom to Farm, a bill that would have dramatically altered U.S. farm policy that helped subsidize farmers and ranchers who, for reasons relating to forces outside their control — such as Mother Nature — couldn’t bring in crops.

Combest told Gingrich then he couldn’t back Freedom to Farm, saying he worked for the West Texas cattle ranchers and cotton farmers who helped elect him to Congress. Combest’s resistance would cost him temporarily the House Agriculture Committee chairmanship, a post he coveted. He didn’t care. Combest stood firmly on the side of his West Texas congressional district.

Ted Cruz, though, isn’t really listening to all Texans if he insists that he is speaking for them in this battle over the budget. Some of us out here may wish the government would curtail spending, but we do not want to see it paralyzed through political dysfunction, which is what Cruz is espousing.

I agree with Cruz that he doesn’t work for the party bosses. He works for all Texans, even those who prefer to see their elected representatives work constructively to get things done on their behalf.

Keeping the government functioning is one of those things.

Outburst makes me miss Larry Combest

Randy Neugebauer’s disgraceful outburst against a U.S. National Park Service employee has brought unflattering comparisons between the West Texas congressman and the man who preceded him in that office.

Neugebauer, a Lubbock Republican, confronted a park ranger this week as she was seeking to enforce a rule banning visitors from entering an open-air exhibit on the Washington D.C. Mall. The exhibit was the World War II veterans memorial and Neugebauer, whose votes in the House of Representatives contributed to the partial government shutdown now in its fourth day, upbraided the ranger for refusing to let people in. “You should be ashamed,” he told the ranger. The exchange was caught on video and has gone viral.

It was an idiotic example of what’s transpiring now in D.C. The people responsible for this mess are now becoming the chief grandstanders.

I thought of Republican Larry Combest, who represented the same 19th Congressional District from 1985 until 2002, when he resigned unexpectedly to return to private life.

Combest came from a different era. He is just as conservative as Neugebauer but he saw up close the good side of divided government. Combest once served on the late Sen. John Tower’s staff and he would tell me of the times Tower would argue ferociously with the likes of the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who was just as liberal as Tower was conservative. Tower and Humphrey would debate on the Senate floor and then walk out arm in arm after the session was gaveled to a close. The men were foes — never enemies — while they were on the clock, but friends when time expired.

Combest understood that. His best friend in the House was a Democrat, Charlie Stenholm of Abilene, with whom he served on the Agriculture Committee. Stenholm lost his congressional seat in 2004; his district was paired with Neugebauer’s district. The GOP-led Texas Legislature made sure Neugebauer would win by stacking the new district with true-blue Republican voters.

I’ve long wondered how Combest voted in that election.

I got to know Combest pretty well over many years. For a time, from the early 1990s until 2001, his congressional district included the Randall County portion of Amarillo. Thus, he was a frequent visitor to the newspaper where I worked. I don’t know Neugebauer; I know only of him. What I witnessed this week was thoroughly disagreeable.

I have tried in the past day or so to imagine Larry Combest confronting that park ranger. The image just doesn’t register. Gentlemen know better than to make spectacles of themselves.