Locals bicker over poll on DeLay replacement

Some Republicans are criticizing the Fort Bend County Republican Party chairman’s plan to mail an informal poll to GOP voters to gauge how prospective candidates would fare in the race to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

The candidates are at the mercy of a Texas law that allows four precinct chairmen — one from each of the four counties that make up the 22nd Congressional District, who will be selected by party officials — to cast one vote each to pick the GOP nominee.

“It is very clearly not a representative sampling of Republicans,” said Eric Thode, the chairman of the Fort Bend County GOP. “It’s horribly undemocratic, but it’s the process we’re stuck with.”

Fearing that the committee could pick a candidate who doesn’t appeal to GOP voters, Thode said he would mail the poll this week to 18,000 Republicans who have cast ballots in the past three GOP primaries in his county.

He said the mailing would cost between $10,000 and $12,000. He plans to publicize the findings of the poll, which could put pressure on the electors who will select the GOP candidate to face former Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) in November. Thode cannot be selected to be one of the four electors.

In a letter to accompany the poll, Thode wrote, “We must ensure that our nominee has the support of a majority of Republicans across the district and not just the choice of a group of four.”

Several candidates for DeLay’s seat criticized Thode’s proposal.

“It strikes me as someone who does not have a lot of faith in the precinct chairs [to communicate] what voters are thinking,” said state Rep. Robert Talton (R). “I don’t quite understand what he’s doing, other than it will favor a candidate from that area.”

State Rep. Charlie Howard (R-Texas) said that the poll is not fair to candidates representing areas outside of Fort Bend County and that the scenario is ripe for fraud.

“There are a lot of things that don’t make sense,” Howard said. “Who is going to count the votes? What’s to prevent fraud? What happens if after this goes out and then” another candidate’s name comes up?

Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, a Houston City Council member, also raised concerns.

Others expressed confidence that the precinct chairmen, whom Texas election law has made kingmakers under the current scenario, best reflect the will of the people.

James Woodfill, chairman of the Harris County GOP, said that his precinct chairmen are writing a questionnaire for prospective candidates to answer and that the chairmen will meet next week to interview the candidates.

“The precinct chairs are probably more educated than 99 percent of the voters,” Woodfill said.

David Wallace, the mayor of Sugar Land, Texas, in Fort Bend County, disagreed, saying the poll “is a wonderful idea” that ensures voters’ voices are heard.

Candidates for DeLay’s seat are reaching out to possible electors in meetings and over the phone to make their case.

Still, it is unclear what kind of response Thode will get because voters will have to remove the card attached to the letter, vote and then use their own stamps to mail the card back to the party, according to a copy of the letter.

DeLay announced last month that he will resign from Congress. A fiery conservative and proficient vote counter and fundraiser, DeLay’s aggressive political style invited three rebukes in 2004 from the House ethics committee and an indictment from the Travis County district attorney, who charged DeLay and two associates with steering corporate dollars to state races.

His resignation announcement came a month after he won renomination in the March primary.

The precinct chairs will be selected when DeLay officially resigns, which he said he would do in late May or early June.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear what role, if any, DeLay is playing to tap his successor and cement a legacy. How DeLay’s input, positive or negative, would affect the race is not clear.

“[DeLay] did not encourage or discourage me,” Howard said. “He said to me, ‘I don’t know if my support would hurt or harm you.’”

Each of the five GOP candidates and two party chairmen contacted by The Hill said that DeLay has remained on the sidelines, as he said publicly that he would do. There are 11 Republican candidates in the field.

Shannon Flaherty, DeLay’s spokeswoman, said, “He wasn’t involved in the race to replace him as majority leader. His legacy, just like his service, will be based on his 20-year record of accomplishments for the district and for the conservative movement.”

“I don’t think he’s going to be endorsing or not endorsing anyone in this first step of the process. My belief he is going to let this process run its course,” Wallace said.

But whichever candidate wins the poll, the only certainty is infighting “within and between the counties over who is going to be the one representative and who’s going to prevail,” said Mike Fjetland, who has run several times against DeLay.

While it is unclear if DeLay will back any candidate, it is apparent he will not be endorsing any of his primary opponents. In the primary, Tom Campbell, a Bush administration lawyer, won 30 percent of the vote, followed by Fjetland with 4.7 percent and Pat Baig with 3.3 percent. All three are declared candidates for DeLay’s soon-to-be-vacated seat.