Rep. Chet Edwards (D)
Texas 17th District
Waco, about midway between Dallas to Austin, is deep in the heart of Texas. In the late 19th century, Waco was one of the largest cotton markets in the world, a rip-roaring town with legalized prostitution. In 1870, it opened a suspension bridge across the Brazos River, then the largest single-span suspension bridge in the United States, and it became the main depot along the Chisholm Trail, which cattlemen used to drive their longhorns north to Kansas shipyards. In 1885, a Waco pharmacist concocted the first Dr. Pepper. Not far from Waco is Baylor University, the oldest college in Texas and the largest Baptist university in the world. (Waco was the site of the tragedy of February 1993, when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms moved in on cult leader David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound. Koresh and many of his followers died in the ensuing fire.) In Waco’s McLennan County is the tiny town of Crawford, with its Rainey Creek that traverses former President George W. Bush’s 1,583-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 17th Congressional District of Texas includes all of nine counties and parts of three more but is centered on Waco, which has 30% of the district’s population. To the north, are fast-growing Johnson, Hood and Somervell counties. This once-rural area is now part of exurban Forth Worth. The other population center in the district is Brazos County, whose largest city, College Station, is home to Texas A&M University. The school’s agricultural and military tradition sets it apart from the University of Texas. It has a more conservative atmosphere, is the site of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates was its president until he left for Washington in December 2006. Even in the recession, the university-fueled growth in College Station kept the local economy strong. The political tradition in central Texas for more than a century was heavily Democratic. This area voted for Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, while most of the rural South went for Dixiecrat George Wallace and Republican Richard Nixon. As recently as 1990, it voted Democratic for governor, supporting Waco native Ann Richards. But the district has followed most of Texas and become Republican. George W. Bush carried the area when running for governor in 1994 and 1998, and the district voted 68% for him for president in 2000 and 70% in 2004. It voted 67.1% for GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008, his second-strongest district represented in Congress by a Democrat. (The first was Mississippi’s 4th District.)
Rep. Chet Edwards (D)
Elected: 1990, 10th term.
Born: Nov. 24, 1951, Corpus Christi .
Education: TX A&M U., B.A. 1974, Harvard U., M.B.A. 1981.
Family: Married (Lea Ann); 2 children.
Elected office: TX Senate, 1982–90.
Professional Career: Legis. & dist. dir., U.S. Rep. Olin Teague, 1975–77; Marketing rep., Trammell Crow Co., 1981–85; Pres., Edwards Communications, 1985–90.
The congressman from the 17th District is Chet Edwards, a Democrat first elected in 1990, and only the third congressman from the Waco-centered district since 1937. Edwards is one of those highly skilled and motivated Democrats who has made politics his life—and who helped keep the Texas Legislature and the U.S. House Democratic for so many years. He grew up in Corpus Christi and was a junior golf champion. Edwards played against future Masters winner Ben Crenshaw. “After playing in the same junior events he did, I realized the Lord had a different plan for me, and I’d better spend more time in the library,” he has said. Edwards graduated from Texas A&M, where he studied economics under future Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, then a conservative Democrat and an economics professor. Edwards met Democratic Rep. Olin “Tiger” Teague while still in school, and Teague was impressed enough to hire him as his district director when Edwards graduated. In 1978, when Teague retired after 42 years in the House, Edwards ran for his seat at age 26. In the Democratic primary, Edwards wound up in third place but finished just 115 votes behind Gramm, who went on to win the seat. Edwards went off to Harvard University to get an M.B.A., returned to Texas and moved to Duncanville in southwest Dallas County. He ran for the state Senate in 1982, at age 31, and won. In 1990, when Democratic Rep. Marvin Leath retired, Edwards moved his residence to Waco and ran for the 11th District seat. He was unopposed in the Democratic primary and with strong support from Leath, secured a promise of an Armed Services Committee seat from then-Democratic House Speaker Thomas Foley. Edwards won 53%-47%.
|Chet Edwards (D)||134,592||(53%)||($2,114,653)|
|Rob Curnock (R)||115,581||(46%)||($109,335)|
|Chet Edwards (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (58%), 2004 (51%), 2002 (52%), 2000 (55%), 1998 (82%), 1996 (57%), 1994 (59%), 1992 (67%), 1990 (53%)
In the House, Edwards eventually won a seat on Appropriations. With a voting record near the center of the House, Edwards has taken conservative stands on some, but by no means all issues. After Democrats lost their majority in 1994, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt asked Edwards to serve as one of four chief deputy whips. Edwards accepted but promptly voted for the Republicans’ Contract with America’s balanced budget amendment and line-item veto. He has voted for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and for the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. But he also toed the party line on issues that sometimes put him at odds with the conservative voters in his district. He supported a waiting period for sales at gun shows, opposed the repeal of the estate tax and voted against banning partial birth abortions.
In the years running up to the 2003 redistricting, Edwards won re-election in an increasingly Republican district by narrowing margins. When the Republican-drawn district lines were announced in October 2003, it was obvious he would face a serious challenge. The Republicans nominated state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth from Johnson County, an experienced and aggressive challenger. “I am proud that I will be receiving the vote of President George W. Bush,” Wohlgemuth frequently proclaimed and featured President Bush prominently in her ads. She attacked Edwards for voting against the partial birth abortion ban. “This is a Republican district. It deserves to have a conservative Republican representing it,” she said. Edwards responded aggressively, attacking his opponent as overly partisan: “While Mrs. Wohlgemuth is focusing on partisanship on every breath in this campaign, I find voters feel strongly, including Republicans, that we need less partisanship in Washington, not more.” He repeatedly charged that a bill she sponsored in the Legislature had removed 147,000 children from the state children’s health insurance program; she said the real number was 26,000. He argued that his seniority and his seat on the Appropriations Committee made him much better positioned to help the district, cited the projects he had funded, and pledged to keep the threatened Waco Veterans’ Affairs hospital open. Edwards was one of six white male Democratic incumbents in Texas seriously threatened by the 2003 redistricting (a seventh retired), and he was the only one to win, by 51%-47%. In McLennan and Bosque counties, the only two counties in his old 11th District, he led 63%-36%, a big improvement over his 2002 showing there, and an impressive 30 percentage points ahead of John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. In Johnson County and the two adjacent counties in the Dallas/Fort Worth media market, Wohlgemuth led 61%-37%, running 13 percentage points behind Bush.
Since the Democrats won control of the House in the 2006 elections, Edwards has chaired the Appropriations Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee. In 2007, he reacted cautiously to President Bush’s troop surge. “I have serious concerns about the ability of a U.S. troop surge to solve the sectarian violence. But I think the Congress should be extremely careful before it stops the commander-in-chief from implementing the plan,” he said. Edwards resisted fellow Appropriations subcommittee Chairman John Murtha’s attempt to put readiness requirements into the 2007 war funding bill that would prevent scheduled troops from reaching Iraq, and Murtha’s plan was stopped. On the Appropriations committee in 2007, Edwards helped pass a $10 billion increase for the VA, mostly for veterans’ health care and benefits. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has relied heavily on the politically savvy Edwards in reaching out to veterans’ groups. The economic stimulus bill enacted in February 2009 included $8 million for construction projects at the Waco VA hospital.
Edwards’ growing influence did not mean an end to Republican efforts to defeat him. In 2006, he faced wealthy Iraq war veteran Van Taylor. Edwards unleashed attacks on Taylor, pointing out that he had only recently moved into the district (although Edwards himself moved from Dallas County to Waco to run in 1990) and asking exactly how much Exxon Mobil stock Taylor owned. Taylor’s disclosure forms said it was between $5 million and $25 million. Taylor spent $1 million of his own money. But in the more Democratic climate of 2006, Edwards won by his widest margin in the decade, 58%-40%. In 2008, his GOP challenger, Robert Curnock, garnered little money or national attention, but he sought to turn to his advantage the Edwards’ support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Edwards won 53%-46%. Curnock won Johnson County, but Edwards benefited from a 60%-39% lead in McLennan. In 2008, Pelosi enthusiastically encouraged Obama to place Edwards on his short list of potential vice presidents.