Getting Schooled

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

The boot heel portion of the district will be Democrat, he's sure, and the religious voters to the north won't come out in the numbers of previous years.

"Then you have the split of not straight-ticket voting because of the governor's race," he says, warming up. Voters who go for Strayhorn or Kinky won't be pulling the straight-Republican lever; most of the Kinky and some of the Strayhorn will lump Culberson with Perry and won't be able to bring themselves to vote for him, Henley believes.

One problem for Henley -- well, one problem beyond the fact the district is gerrymandered for a Republican -- is the inner-loop neighborhoods along Richmond. Usually they could be relied on for some Democratic support, but they are mightily pissed at Metro for trying to build a light-rail line through their neighborhoods. Culberson has made clear he agrees with them, and if reelected he'd be a formidable ally for the residents. (Although perhaps not as formidable as in the past, if Democrats take control of the House.)

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.

Henley says it's not the job of a congressman to say where the line should go; that should be left to local residents and officials. That stance will cost him some votes he'd normally get, and he's not really in a position where he can be writing off too many of those.

Call him delusional, but he says he's glad his race is not considered winnable. It keeps it "off the radar," he says, of national groups coming in spending money to help Culberson. (Not that the money race will be tight -- Henley will spend about $125,000, Culberson closer to $600,000.)

There are other factors in the race that are unpredictable -- down-ballot battles like the intense Martha Wong-Ellen Cohen fight or the Hubert Vo-Talmadge Heflin rematch. Two things are sure: a) Henley is convinced the district is ripe for the taking, and b) most everybody else in the local political world, not so much.

V.

Pay Attention to the Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room being, in this case, the Iraq war. Henley has been against the invasion from the beginning. Going into Afghanistan, yes; he favors sending even more troops there. But Iraq was a colossal mistake, he feels; get him talking about it and the debate coach gets dangerously close to losing control and heading into rant territory.

But hey, seeing as it's the biggest issue of the year, let's have a rant.

"To say, 'Our presence [in Iraq] is destabilizing, so we're gonna stay there to stabilize it,' it makes me wonder about people. What the hell is that about? Going into that preemptively, unilaterally, Americans by themselves, into that hotbed of anti-Americanism and then occupying the country, who the hell thought that up? Not James Baker, he wrote against it. So why do you think staying there is going to make it better?"

Come on, don't stop now: "I wish to God it were required, if you're so supportive of the war, to spend a week in Fallujah...The guys who are fighting to stay have never been in combat; the guys who have been tortured, who have been fighting, who have been there, they are opposed to this. 'We Support Our Troops'? Get your ass in Fallujah for a week and then tell me what you think. 'We Support the Troops' -- Yeah, you support them, you support them a thousand miles away, not paying any taxes, not making any sacrifice, not doing a damn thing but saying you support the troops and putting a little ribbon on your car. What have you done to support the troops in a failed mission?"

Henley can do a mean imitation of what Culberson said in a public Q&A appearance recently when he was asked what America was doing in Iraq ("We're chewin' up terrorists" was the answer). At the Chronicle meeting, Culberson said he had been reading Bob Woodward's State of Denial and was beginning to think things were not going as well in Iraq as they should.

"When you see John Culberson, a man with pompoms, a cheerleader for the war, put down his pompoms, this is grim," Henley says. "But it's been grim."

VI.

Keep Doing What You're Doing

On a Saturday two weeks before Election Day, what was Jim Henley doing? Spending 15 hours squiring 100 middle schoolers to a debate tournament. ("Waiting with the bus until 10:30 [p.m.] for the parents to pick up their kids, that's the fun part," he says with a roll of the eyes.)

He peeled off when he could during the day to hit a house party, but in terms of the campaign, it wasn't a very productive day. Henley, of course, wouldn't have it any other way.

He's keeping his unorthodox ways in other matters: He's taking no money from PACs, or the national or state Democratic parties. It's not like he's turning down tens of thousands those groups are wanting to shower on him, but he has returned checks from such Web-roots organizations as ActBlue.

He's a bit of a fanatic on getting federal financing of Congressional campaigns in order to get rid of the influence of big-money groups.

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