Return to Congress may be a tough sell for Sekula-Gibbs

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) opted out of running in a special election to his current seat for the two months before swearing-in day last week.

Former Rep. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs (R-Texas) might have been well served by doing the same, according to local political observers and operatives.

With her two-month term now over, analysts say Sekula-Gibbs not only has failed to establish herself as a frontrunner for the GOP nomination next year, but also has damaged her chances for a second stint in Washington.

A staff walkout during her first week in Washington and a potential multi-million dollar special election to fill her vacated Houston City Council seat could hamper an expected 2008 bid, opening the field to other candidates who passed on a write-in bid against Lampson last year.

At least one top contender, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, has expressed serious interest in taking on Lampson. That was in November, and with filing day now about a year away and the primary in March 2008, candidates are expected to flood the field in the coming months.

The 22nd district is sure to be a top target in 2008, as it was the most heavily Republican district to flip Democratic in November and in 2004 went 64-36 for President Bush. Republicans were unable to replace former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on the ballot after he resigned in June, and a number of top-tier candidates declined to take on the cash-swollen Lampson campaign.

Sekula-Gibbs became the party’s choice, losing by 10 points in the general election but winning the special election over a field of relative unknowns.

She set ambitious goals for immigration and tax cuts and spent more than her share of time speaking on the House floor.

But her legacy, for now, remains the seven former DeLay staffers who walked out of her office. DeLay’s former chief of staff, David James, later said the staff had never before been treated with “as much disrespect and un-professionalism” as it had been under Sekula-Gibbs.

Sekula-Gibbs accused staffers of destroying files and demanded a congressional investigation. The episode was top fodder for the Washington gossip community and local columnists, one of whom labeled her “Turkey of the Year.”

“It would have been hard for her to be a viable candidate even under the best of circumstances,” a professor of political science at Rice University, Bob Stein, said. “But this really just, I think, in everybody’s mind, relegated her to not a major contender for the nomination.”

Sekula-Gibbs also may have to address an ongoing controversy over the special election to fill the Houston City Council seat she left for her short stint in the House. Houston Mayor Bill White might try to change state law in order to cancel the special election, which is scheduled for May and would fill the seat for the remainder of the year, in the name of saving money.

Estimates indicate the election could cost $2 million — possibly $4 million if a runoff is required. And in a crowded field, a close result is probable. There had been a similar debate about the congressional special election.

“That will further hurt Sekula-Gibbs, because the fiscal conservatives will say, ‘Why are you forcing us to spend all this money on another, rather meaningless election?’” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston, who predicted the city council special election would go forward.

Sekula-Gibbs emphasized the “hard work” she put in on the Hill and said serving was a great experience, akin to stepping onto a Super Bowl field in the game’s final two minutes. She said she’s currently analyzing a 2008 bid and is “inclined to do it.”

She said the staff walkout didn’t cause her to miss a beat, and she said the special election should be held on the cheap — less than $1 million — with collapsed precincts.

“I don’t think the price for democracy is a high price,” Sekula-Gibbs said. “I think that should go forward, and I don’t think the people of district 22 will look at that as a negative.”

Local GOP operatives say Sekula-Gibbs hasn’t helped her cause, but they downplay how much she has hurt her future prospects.

“It was such a short period of time; I don’t believe it will really have an effect,” the chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican Party, Gary Gillen, said.

At the same time, they emphasize the field of candidates likely to compete for the party’s nomination and say the race is wide open.

Bettencourt’s early interest is complicated by the fact that he has to resign his current position the moment he says he’s running for Congress. He also lives just outside the district, meaning he would likely need to move.

He said local GOP officials and lawmakers, including Jared Woodfill, the chairman of Harris County, approached him about a run in November, shortly after Sekula-Gibbs took over.

“It was because, I think, people were very concerned about, A, retaking the seat, but B, what the effect on Shelley and the net loss for the party would be at the time,” he said. “And I don’t think those reflections have changed much, at least down here in Texas.”

Woodfill said Bettencourt would be a favorite for the nomination because he’s well known and well liked in his home county, which comprises about 40 percent of the district.

“Paul Bettencourt has the highest name I.D. and the highest positive name I.D.,” Woodfill said. “He is the most popular politician in Harris County.”

David Wallace, the Sugar Land mayor who withdrew from a write-in candidacy last August, has said he is eyeing 2008.

In addition, state Reps. Charlie Howard and Robert Talton, as well as lawyer Tom Campbell, who briefly ran last year, may pursue the seat.

Most agree there will be plenty of alternatives to Sekula-Gibbs.

“All bets are off in ’08,” the chairman of the Brazoria County Republican Party, Yvonne Dewey, said. “It will be a totally different field.”

During her short tenure, Gibbs cosponsored eight bills on immigration reform, healthcare, taxes and abortion — issues she said are most important to her constituents. Each of the bills, except H.R. 6099, which “ensures that women seeking an abortion are fully informed regarding the pain experienced by their unborn child,” was sponsored by a fellow Texas lawmaker.

On immigration, Gibbs cosponsored H.R. 4238 and H.R. 4360, which call for enhanced border security and detention facilities and authorize assistance and funding for sheriffs along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She also cosponsored H.R. 1040, which would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide a flat-tax alternative to the current tax system, and H.R. 1517, which would repeal the 1993 tax increase on Social Security benefits.

On healthcare, Gibbs cosponsored H.R. 709, which clarifies the right of those on Medicare to enter into private contracts with physicians for which no payment is sought under the Medicare program.