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A good campaign manager can make or break a politician, so when a retired Texas Ranger named Milton Wright decided to run for sheriff of Fort Bend County in this week's Republican primary, he settled on an experienced GOP volunteer named Jacqueline Blankenship.
A certified paralegal and mediator, Blankenship had managed telephone banks for both George Bushes and aspired to becoming a campaign professional in heavily Republican Fort Bend County. There was just one glitch in her resume: she and her husband had incurred the lasting enmity of Fort Bend's most powerful Republican, Congressman Tom DeLay of Sugar Land. And there apparently is no statute of limitations on DeLay's vindictiveness.
Two years ago, Blankenship's husband Robert sued DeLay and his business partner for fraud over the sale of Albo Pest Control, a company in which Robert Blankenship held a one-third interest (See "The Exterminator" in the November 23 Press). A judge ordered DeLay to settle the case, and both sides agreed not to discuss the terms. The Blankenships may have wrested a settlement from their suit, but DeLay, whose campaign motto is "a promise made is a promise kept," seems determined to destroy Jacqueline Blankenship's career ambitions and those of any politician who dares to accept her help.
DeLay personally commissioned a telephone poll that was designed to discredit Wright, and made radio and television spots endorsing Wright's main opponent, former Fort Bend deputy sheriff Marshall Whichard. DeLay's campaign manager denied that the congressman's motivation was to get even with Blankenship, saying he had developed a personal friendship with Whichard during the last few months and believed he was the most conservative candidate. But Eric Thode, Fort Bend's Republican chairman, couldn't recall DeLay's ever taking a side in a local primary contest.
Bev Carter, a Republican and the publisher of the Fort Bend Star since DeLay entered politics in 1978, says the congressman clearly is pursuing a vendetta against the Blankenships, and she has editorialized against him.
"I don't like to see somebody picked on," says Carter, "and Jacqueline's being picked on. Who's going to hire her if they know Tom DeLay is going to come down on them like an avenging angel?"
A Texas Ranger, for one. Milton Wright says that in early January, the leader of a local Republican group he will not name ("I've got to work with these people, you know") knocked on his door and said he had a deal for Wright: if Wright got rid of Blankenship, the GOP activist thought he could keep DeLay from endorsing his opponent.
Blankenship had already warned Wright that DeLay might pull something like that. She had to resign as campaign manager for state Representative Charlie Howard during her husband's lawsuit, and DeLay had pressured Fort Bend Republicans to take her off of George W. Bush's phone bank. Last fall, Blankenship thought she had a good chance to be appointed to a volunteer post on the Texas Structural Pest Control Board, only to learn that DeLay's business partner from Albo Pest Control, Darrell Hutto, got the spot.
Wright says it didn't take him long to make up his mind about DeLay's tactics, and he says he sent his response in a suitable Ranger locution: kiss my ass.
On the weekend of February 23, DeLay answered back. Wright's wife, Marion, received a call from a political pollster asking who she was voting for in the sheriff's election. Next came the "push" question. The pollster wanted to know if she would change her vote if she knew that her husband's opponent had 18 years in county law enforcement while Milton Wright had none. Marion Wright was a bit surprised by that one, since her husband had spent the last 14 years in Fort Bend County as a Texas Ranger investigating major cases for the district attorney's office. The last question was whether it would make a difference in her vote if Tom DeLay made an endorsement.
DeLay did not return calls from the Press, but his local campaign manager, Keith Kouba, defended the push question as technically accurate because Marshall Whichard had worked for the Fort Bend County sheriff's office and Wright had not. DeLay did commission the poll, Kouba said a week before the March 12 balloting, but revenge was not the motive.
"Milton's side has definitely been pumping that out," the campaign manager said. "That's a lot of assumption. They're really giving her a lot of credit, but that's fine. If I were in her shoes, I would do that, too. We're not worried about that."
Maybe not, but some Fort Bend Republicans who deeply believe in Republican slogans about getting the federal government out of local politics are wondering why the House majority whip was messing in a local primary contest.
"What scares me," says Jacqueline Blankenship, "is that I just want to get a job. If I can't get a volunteer job, how am I going to get a regular job? This is a congressman, and all he wants to do is go after me. Doesn't he have better things to do?