Playing by earmark

Lyle Larson never ran for Congress before this year, but that doesn’t mean this is his first Congressional campaign.

In 1978, when the Bexar County Commissioner was a 19-year-old freshman at Angelo State University, his dad, Wallace Larson, made a Congressional run of his own, and recruited Lyle to help steer his campaign.

“I didn’t really understand a whole lot about politics,” Larson says with a laugh. “It was an eye-opening experience.”

Larson, 49, got his political baptism that year when his dad, a local veterinarian, sent him to represent the campaign at a Farm Bureau forum in the small Central Texas town of Winters. The various candidates drew straws to determine their speaking order, and Larson came up second behind Nelson Wolff, a Democratic hopeful who would later serve with Larson on City Council (with Wolff as mayor) and the Bexar County Commissioners Court.

“Nelson gets up there and speaks very eloquently about how the food stock of America is because of the hard work that farmers across the country have put in,” Larson recalls. “It was very heartwarming in saying, ‘Yes, I support the subsidies.’ And so here I come up and I’m going to have to say the opposing view, and it was somewhat of a hostile crowd.

“My dad had told me not to throw any mud, to just stick to the issues. I got up and said, ‘Well, I grew up on a farm, and I just want to know how many people would trust their chickens to a man named Wolff.’”

The line earned a laugh from the crowd, a mild scolding from Larson’s dad (who saw the quote in a newspaper and thought his son had disregarded his mudslinging advice), and made a lasting impression on Wolff, who immediately brought it up when Larson won election to the San Antonio City Council 13 years later.

Wallace Larson finished a close second in the Republican primary that year to Tom Loeffler, but for his son, the lessons of that campaign still apply: Have a little fun with politics, speak your mind without hesitation, and don’t get blinded by mindless partisanship.

In challenging District 23 Representative Ciro Rodriguez, Larson faces several obstacles: The power of Rodriguez’s incumbency; his opponent’s larger war chest ($1.9 million to $535,000); and, to some degree, Larson’s own stubbornly conservative views, including his support for the controversial Fair Tax, which would replace the income tax with a federal sales tax. It’s an approach that critics have long called regressive and detrimental to working-class families.

Larson’s greatest strength, however, is his obvious distaste for the corrupting influence of politics. He’s spent 17 years in city and county government, but he convincingly argues that he’s not attached to politics as a profession. For one thing, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize members of his party (including the Bush Administration) for fiscal recklessness. And in an indisputably potent example of walking the walk, he’s not only consistently voted against pay raises for the commissioners court, this owner of a medical- and security-imaging company has actually refused to accept the raises when they’ve passed. As a result, his fellow county commissioners take home $108,000 a year, while Larson receives a salary of only $48,000. And a central part of his campaign is his proposal to limit all members of Congress to 12 years in office.

“The whole time I’ve been in local office, I’ve never really been concerned about the party system, the whole issue of how they manipulate people. It’s just nasty business,” Larson says. “I’ve just focused on the information in front of me and tried to lay solutions on the table and move forward.”

Even after a decade in Congress, Ciro Rodriguez, 61, could likewise build a case that he’s no darling of the political establishment. After representing District 28 for four terms, he twice suffered the indignity of losing Democratic primaries (2004 and 2006) for the Congressional seat when GOP-engineered redistricting snipped his Southside base out of the district. Even after a 2006 Supreme Court decision resulted in a redrawn District 23, which included Rodriguez’s old base, he looked like a long shot in the race to unseat Republican Henry Bonilla. His runoff victory over Bonilla turned out to be one of the biggest electoral shockers in the Democrats’ midterm Congressional takeover.

Local Republicans who mockingly call him “Zero” are quick to assert that the rude nickname came from local members of Rodriguez’s own party.

“He’s just never been a power,” says Steve Heinrich, communications director for the Bexar County Republican Party. “He’s never been a mental giant. His own party said so. They didn’t want him to be the nominee, ’cause they didn’t think he could do it. He accidentally won, and they’re stuck with him now, so they’re putting everything in there to save the seat.”

On first blush, Larson and Rodriguez couldn’t be much more different. Larson is a tall, white-haired, broad-shouldered Texas farm boy who favors cowboy boots and speaks with a Lone Star twang. Rodriguez is a skinny, dark-haired, mustachioed Mexico native who’s never lost his Piedras Negras accent.

Both men, however, love to discuss policy minutia, and fancy themselves post-partisan problem solvers. Larson likes to take the old “all politics is local” concept and extend it to say that all local politics comes down to three issues: infrastructure, criminal justice, and economic development. As he sees it, these issues transcend party affiliation, and Rodriguez makes a similar point.

“Usually, it’s not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem,” Rodriguez says about the concerns of his constituents. “It’s, ‘Ciro, we’re having a lot of problems with ticks.’”   

Rodriguez has voted with the majority of his fellow Democrats nearly 97 percent of the time during his five terms in Congress, but the exceptions to his party solidarity are revealing. He voted for the FISA government-surveillance bill this summer, saying that he had “mixed feelings” about it, but considered its passage a vital national security issue. He also voted to restore gun rights in the District of Columbia and angered many Latinos by backing the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement Act, a bill designed to impede undocumented immigration by bolstering the Border Patrol and tightening employer regulations.

An early opponent of the Iraq War, Rodriguez takes on a populist tone when discussing the long, expensive policing of the country, saying, “We need to do nation-building in our own backyard.” Sensitive to the strong military presence in San Antonio, however, he’s also been an outspoken advocate for veterans’ rights. When he talks about his August visit to Baghdad, Rodriguez swiftly focuses on what he considers to be inadequate compensation for American forces, especially when compared to the pay received by employees of private firms contracting with the U.S. government.

“There’s a lot of positive things there, but the first thing I noticed was all these Hispanics,” Rodriguez says. “I said, ‘My God, we have a heavy presence here.’ Well, they were from Peru, all the guards, everywhere we went; which was fine, but they’re all getting paid more than our soldiers.

“Then you go to the mess halls. The food is great, no criticism whatsoever, but all the people working there are Indian. In the contracts, they brought in Indians to do this. And they also get paid higher than our soldiers. At some point, there’s a problem there.”

The two candidates differ sharply on the issue of Congressional earmarks. Larson says that as a member of Congress, he would push for the elimination of all earmarks until the federal government achieves a balanced budget. He argues that specific projects should be openly vetted by Congress, rather than attached to bills as earmarks.

Earmarks have been an easy target this year for politicians vaguely decrying “politics as usual,” so Rodriguez deserves some credit for defending them, even as he argues that the Congressional Democratic majority has trimmed earmark expenditures and has forced members of Congress to attach their names to earmarks that they add to bills.

“When the president submits a budget, they don’t know all the `local` interests,” Rodriguez says. “For example: The $5 million that I just nailed for UTSA from Homeland Security, the other $5 million we nailed from the Department of Defense for UTSA on cyber security. They’re all earmarks. And they have created the bachelors and masters programs on cyber security. There are some companies in San Antonio that are starting to develop because of that.”

Larson’s aversion to big government and wild spending motivated his signature statement in this campaign: a TV ad which features him on a farm while pigs feed at the trough and Larson compares the federal government to those gluttonous swine. The commercial has caused the harshest exchanges of the campaign, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (acting independently, according to Rodriguez) filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission because Larson failed to note that he approved the ad. Larson says the FEC incorrectly told his production team that a “paid for” message was sufficient, and that he added the word “approved” as soon as the flap emerged. He says some of his Democratic adversaries have taken to calling him “Lyle Larceny.’

For all the surrogate nastiness, both candidates are reluctant to level attacks at their opponent. Larson says he’s worked well with Rodriguez’s brother, Chico, on the Commissioners Court and says, despite their ideological differences, he would never question Rodriguez’s integrity or patriotism. Rodriguez insists he will never run a negative ad, and when asked to compare his agenda with that of Larson, he carefully avoids any mention of his opponent.

“The only way you can judge a person is based on what they’ve accomplished or not accomplished,” Rodriguez says. “And I would just ask you to look at that. I’ve worked hard as a legislator. I’m really proud of some of the legislation I’ve done.”