Getting Schooled

A legendary debate teacher has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson

"Clinton was putting together his presidential campaign and Lee Atwater wanted to stop it," he says. "He was scared of Clinton, and only Clinton. He wanted to run [George H.W. Bush] against Mario Cuomo."

Whether that's true or not, Henley is convinced of it. "We've been fighting a defensive struggle here to keep our head above water as a family since 1985," he says of the business setbacks, rumors and investigations.

But he does fight. He says he never considered a plea bargain in his case. He spoke out often and loudly during McDougal's troubles, picketing in front of prosecutors' offices, showing up at her court appearances to rip into Starr for the assembled media.

Legendary debate teacher Jim Henley has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson
Daniel Kramer
Legendary debate teacher Jim Henley has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson
The Young Democrats of Lamar High hook up with Henley.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
The Young Democrats of Lamar High hook up with Henley.

It seems clear that the Henleys don't really worry about the odds when they decide something's worth fighting for. And beating Republican incumbent John Culberson is, to Henley, something that is definitely worth a fight.

III.

Know Your Opponent

Henley says one thing, and one thing only, made him decide to run for Congress just as he was retiring from Lanier: John Culberson.

Culberson, a three-term incumbent, just gets under Henley's skin.

"There's got to be one or two demagogues who are worse than John, but he's in the top three," Henley says. "I just don't believe a guy like him should go unchallenged."

Culberson is, in many ways, an utterly standard-issue Republican of the Tom DeLay era. A politician for the past 20 years, he's advocating all the hot-button issues: building a border fence, cutting non-defense spending, finding myriad ways to insure that gays don't marry. He's pushed for all this -- and some of the goofier DeLay stuff, like abolishing the IRS and replacing it with a sales tax -- without engendering that high a profile. If he's known for anything around Houston, it is for opposing just about every light-rail project that's been thought of, much like DeLay did.

But it's the rhetoric as much as the voting record that gets Henley. He'll relate in disbelief how in their one joint appearance, before the Houston Chronicle editorial board, Culberson talked of "carpet-bombing" Iraqi cities (after, it should be noted, evacuating the women and children). How Culberson compares illegal immigrants to the Visigoths who brought down Rome after being "invited in." How he regularly tells audiences that he fully expects simultaneous truck bombs to be set off in every major U.S. city at some point. How he claims Venezuela is giving fake passports to Al-Qaeda members, a claim that's been refuted by the author of the report he cites as proof.

"It's just amazing to me, and he gets by with it," Henley says. "People say, 'Oh, that's just John,' but at what point is he responsible for his fear-mongering and standing around [for photo ops] with Uzis on the border?"

(At the Chron meeting, Henley and another participant say, Culberson angrily lit into James Gibbons, the head of the paper's editorial board, over what he thought were past misrepresentations. The result was one of the Chron's odder editorials -- and that's saying something -- in which they declared Culberson was likely to win reelection but needed to be nicer to people.)

What's Culberson's take on all this? He's not backing off carpet-bombing, to be sure. See our sidebar.

Perhaps understandably, Culberson has refused Henley's open offer to debate the issues. To be fair, it'd kind of be like the guy running against Arnold Schwarzenegger agreeing to a weight-lifting contest.

IV.

Know Your District

The Seventh District is not on anyone's radar for a Democratic takeover. It voted 2-1 for Bush (and Culberson) in 2004.

It's shaped somewhat like Missouri, with the boot heel consisting of the Democratic-friendly areas of Meyerland, Montrose, Bellaire and the Medical Center; the lower border has the high-dollar enclaves of Memorial, Tanglewood and the Villages out on I-10, where the Republicans are fiscal conservatives but maybe not totally in tune with the evangelical agenda. In the northern part of the district are the less densely populated but very conservative areas around 290, like Jersey Village.

The district is designed to elect Republicans, and Culberson has had no serious opposition since replacing the legendary Bill Archer in 2000. His Democratic opponent in 2004 spent much of the campaign season in Saudi Arabia.

Most political observers think Culberson's victory margin might significantly shrink this year, but it's hard to find anyone forecasting an upset. "If Culberson loses," says one longtime Democratic activist, "that means there won't be any Republicans left."

Such analysis is "that 2-1 BS" to Henley. The 2004 elections saw Republicans eagerly voting to support Bush, he says. Culberson "got a pull of the lever in 2004 and people say he's popular -- I mean, what the hell? I could have gotten 2-1 if I had been under George Bush on the ballot," he says.

Henley's tour of the electoral map? "Guess who's really pissed off? Over in Memorial you've got one Culberson sign in 10,000 houses, why? These are country-club Republicans who are not all intellectually challenged, who are fiscal conservatives, who see the debt and the spending and all this stuff, and they're fractured," he says. "Are they really souped up to go vote this time? Who's got them motivated to vote? Perry? Culberson, Tom DeLay's best buddy? No, they're going to be disenchanted."

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