Candidate

With big bucks and blessings from on high, Eugene Fontenot comes out from behind his wall to buy a seat in Congress

"What I would try to do.... What are we trying to do? ... Let's do during the daytime ... I believe these kids unfortunately have gotten away from homework ... you know, let's do everything to help 'em, besides play basketball. If you wanna be a professional basketball, if you're good, that's fine, spend all your time on that. But let's get these people, you know, meaningful work ... and there is work out there, and you know, even McCarthy ... who was, who ran in '68? ... Oh yeah, it was Eugene McCarthy. Here's what he said: there's a place for working at minimum wage jobs. You're out there ... you're made to get up, you get there on time. That's discipline."

So, Fontenot was asked, does he think the reason people aren't taking jobs is because they're lazy or lack discipline?

"Maybe they don't know," he replies, "... you're not born with the ability to work. I know, you have to learn it, you have to be taught, like I was. I was, uh ... asked in a real nice way to get up at three o'clock in the morning and help milk the cows, and, uh, welfare, uh ... I think we can get these people ... you know give the employer the method ... let the employer provide the check to [the] welfare recipient, and go from there....

These people?
Maybe some midnight cow-milking would help impose discipline on "these people" and prepare them for all those minimum-wage jobs to be found in America's inner cities.

Ken Bentsen Jr. possesses the self-awareness to acknowledge, although at some prodding, that his last name "helps a bit" in his political endeavors. (He's the nephew of the former U.S. senator from Texas and current Treasury secretary; his father, an architect, is Lloyd Bentsen's younger brother). And he's got the political smarts not to fully acknowledge the obvious: that if his last name weren't Bentsen, he wouldn't be the Democratic nominee in the 25th Congressional District, nor would he have been twice elected chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party.

Tall and thin, with short, curly hair and a reserved, somewhat formal manner -- stiff is a description employed by other Democrats -- Bentsen comes across as just another well-bred white-collar professional, albeit one with an especially nice view of Houston from the 60th floor of the Texas Commerce Tower, where he works in the public finance section of the George K. Baum investment banking firm. A graduate of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and St. Thomas University, Bentsen worked as a Washington aide to U.S. Representative Ron Coleman of El Paso for five years before returning to Houston in the late '80s. Married for four years and the father of two young children, he is a resident of the Southgate neighborhood. Bentsen oozes normalcy. He's a nice guy.

Mike Andrews' ill-fated decision to forgo reelection to his House seat and instead enter the Democratic primary for Kay Bailey Hutchison's Senate post opened up the position he had held for more than a decade. His absence drew a slew of Democrats and two Republicans, Fontenot and Dolly Madison McKenna, to the primary campaigns. An abortion-rights moderate who had been

the GOP nominee in 1992 (when she moved into the district from River Oaks), McKenna was blind-sided this year by Fontenot's big-bucks media spree. Bentsen, meanwhile, beat a better qualified Democrat, former state Representative Paul Colbert, and several lesser-qualified ones, including former City Councilwoman Beverley Clark, last seen addressing the national convention of the Christian Coalition and bearing false witness by claiming her "life as a Christian" was the main focus of her runoff campaign against Bentsen. Clark now supports Fontenot.

In his party's primary, Bentsen positioned himself as the candidate with appeal to bipartisan downtown power brokers -- former Texas Commerce Bank president Ben Love is a co-chair of his campaign; he's been endorsed by the Houston Chronicle -- and slightly to the left of Andrews on such issues as health care. Once out of the primary, Bentsen, like Fontenot, began tailoring his message for a wider audience. When one of his Democratic primary opponents sent out an incendiary anti-crime mailing, Bentsen responded with a press conference at a Sunnyside neighborhood center in which he pushed community investment and youth programs and lauded elements of Clinton's crime package; six months later, he wouldn't take a firm stand on the crime bill.

His race with Fontenot has cast him in an awkward position. While Fontenot is clearly the big-bucks candidate, Bentsen is the establishment figure, the cautious defender of the status quo, the non-incumbent who's apt to be stung by whatever anti-incumbent sentiment registers at the polls on November 8. And like other Democrats, from Clinton to Ann Richards on down, who've begun to do battle with the religious right, Bentsen goes out of his way to avoid appearing as if he's attacking people for their faith. That's a tricky proposition, given that those on the religious right, from Pat Robertson on down, accuse their critics of doing just that.

Fontenot himself has appropriated that defensive rhetoric. "They don't define what's religious right," he says of the Bentsen campaign. "I go to church like 190 million people go to their church ... or go to their synagogue or church," he adds, mindful that a large slice of Houston's small but heavy-voting Jewish populace resides in the 25th District.

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