Redistricting, an outspoken opponent, a shaky economy, and the controversial war are setting the stage for a competitive District 21 race. What this means for Smith is that he's had to raise more money to run against Courage — $692,000, almost 10 percent of it from the Alamo Heights/Terrell Hills ZIP Code of 78209; what it means for Courage is that he's worn out a lot of shoe leather and tire tread trying to meet 100,000 voters he thinks he needs to win the election over the incumbent. What it means for District 21 is that democracy has finally arrived: Voters have a choice.
Before the boundaries changed, District 21 was overwhelmingly conservative, stretching from San Antonio and the Hill Country west to San Angelo and Midland. Thus, Smith has enjoyed a cakewalk instead of vying for election. In 1998, he ran against Libertarian Jeffrey Blunt, raised about $512,000, and captured more than 91 percent of the vote. In his 2000 race against Democrat Jim Green and Libertarian C.W. Steinbrecher, he received $536,000 in contributions and won 76 percent. (This year, Libertarian DG Roberts is also running.)
When Courage decided to run against Smith, the final district boundaries hadn't yet been drawn. "I felt the need to have a challenger because of how out of touch Lamar is with the district," said Courage, who has raised $139,000 for his race — more than previous challengers combined. "I would have run regardless of what the numbers showed. The common thought was the race was unwinnable."
But after redistricting, Smith's conservative geographical base eroded, as West Texas disappeared from his map, and parts of Travis, Blanco, and Hays counties — more liberal strongholds — appeared like a bright red siren. More than a third of District 21 has never voted for Smith.
"I think generally the issues are the same," Smith said of his new constituency. "Because of the new district, particularly the Austin area, I've increased my emphasis on high-tech issues."
Smith is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security (which explains the defense contractor campaign contributions), and sits on the Constitution and Immigration subcommittees, among others.
Predictably, the Congressman's top issue is homeland security, although his voting record is inconsistent. "Everyone wants a secure America and to prevent future attacks," Smith said, who voted for the Patriot Act, national missile defense, and supports President Bush's initiative to wage war on Iraq. While Smith wants to wrest weapons from the hands of foreign nations, he's ready to equip Americans with a piece: He voted to decrease the waiting period for buying a gun from three days to one day — not surprising, considering he receives money from the National Rifle Association.
Another of Smith's core interests is education. He is pro-voucher: "It is my strong feeling that all children have a right to attend a good school. They need a good education for a good job," he explained.
Well, not all children.
Although Smith voted for a bill that would give temporary visas to highly skilled workers who aren't U.S. citizens, he also supported a measure that allowed states the option of denying public schooling to undocumented immigrants.
"It was a bill to allow states to have the option that if someone is in the country `illegally`, maybe they should go back home instead of making the taxpayers pay for their education," Smith said, defending his vote. "Let the local school districts decide."
Smith's other staunchly conservative votes include banning gay adoptions and prohibiting medicinal marijuana; he also voted to make it harder for death row prisoners to appeal their state cases to federal courts; he supported Bush's tax cut, and voted to decrease Social Security revenues by $44.6 billion over five years.
Now reverse Lamar Smith's positions and you have John Courage.
Health care tops Courage's election platform, which also includes renewable energy, Social Security, and campaign finance reform. He favors higher Medicare benefits, affordable prescription drugs — by regulating the patent system that keeps generics off the market; a national single-payer system as an option to private insurance, which he believes would help cover the 44 million uninsured Americans. To offset health insurance costs for small businesses, he would allot federal income tax breaks for small businesses with fewer than 20 employees.
"The tax break gave to the wealthiest people," Courage said of Bush's 2001 tax cuts. "We need to refocus where we do the most good and help the most people."
A public and private school teacher, Courage opposes vouchers and private educational ventures such as Edison Schools. "I don't think education should be profit-driven," said Courage, who attended public school and sent one of his three children to private school. "I think it's a fallacy to say vouchers help educate the poor. There is transportation, extracurricular activities, uniforms, that aren't covered. If you want to put your child in private school, don't expect the federal government or other taxpayers to do it for you.
"I'm willing to offer choice within public schools," he added. "No one should be forced to send their children to a failing school."
Courage is a union member of the American Federation of Teachers Labor; much of his financial support comes from organized labor. He opposed Bush's use of the Taft-Hartley Act to force West Coast longshoreman to return to work. "Most of the reason the federal government intervenes is to protect the economy, not national security. Labor and management should come to their own agreement."
While Smith has voted against many immigration rights bills, Courage said he would welcome many immigrants to become citizens. "We need to allow undocumented workers who have been here five, 10 years, have been obeying laws, and working — that's as good as any other American citizen — to help them be an equal part of this country. I'm not advocating open borders or situations where people are living off welfare or are criminals, but we have a lot of hard-working undocumented workers in a service industry that relies on them. We need to recognize they are part of the state and national economies and quit punishing businesses and children."
Finally, on the subject of the proposed war on Iraq, Courage is "dead-set against a preemptive strike. I must have proof Iraq is an imminent danger to the U.S. or its allies. If Iraq hides weapons, that might indicate a multi-lateral action, but it would be a disaster to go in alone or with one or two other allies. We don't need to be the policeman of the world."
District 21 is fortunate: It has fielded two candidates who differ on the issues. Even if Courage doesn't win, he's denting Smith's armor and proving the Congressional mainstay is vulnerable.