Texas: Twenty-Fifth District|
Rep. Ken Bentsen (D)
Last Updated June 23, 1999
Houston is, among other things, a blue-collar city. The Ship Channel, which made it the nation's second-largest port, is lined with petrochemical plants and refineries and surrounded by factories, truck terminals and railroad-offloading platforms. Although some neighborhoods long have been close-knit places, others have sprouted up in and around Houston's wide city limits in the past three decades, with their plain, contemporary houses and commercial strip highways. After all, physical mobility is easy in spread-out Houston and many people keep in touch through churches though they are miles apart.
The 25th District includes many such neighborhoods on the east and south sides of Houston. Its boundaries, now that they have been smoothed out by the August 1996 federal court redistricting, can be described more easily. On the east it includes Baytown and the industrial corridor to the north, Deer Park and Pasadena south of the Ship Channel, Highlands on the north. It includes the southern edge of Houston from Hobby Airport west to the Southwest Freeway. It includes Bellaire and the affluent neighborhoods just west of the Texas Medical Center and Rice University. The 1996 redistricting removed some black precincts; black percentage dropped from 27% to 23% but Hispanics increased from 16% to 19%. The political complexion was changed more than any other Texas district. The district under the old lines voted 47%-36% for Bill Clinton in 1992; the district under the new lines was 42%-39% for Clinton.
The congressman from the 25th District is Ken Bentsen, a Democrat elected in 1994. He grew up in Houston, where his father is an architect; his grandfather was the fabled Rio Grande Valley pioneer Lloyd Bentsen Sr., and his uncle is former Senator and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen Jr. After college in Houston, Ken Bentsen worked four years as a Capitol Hill staffer for Ron Coleman, spending much of his time at the Appropriations Committee; then he joined an investment banking firm in Houston and was elected Harris County Democratic chairman in 1990 and 1992. In 1994, when incumbent Democrat Mike Andrews ran for the Senate (he finished third in the primary), Bentsen ran for the House. In a light-turnout Democratic primary, Bentsen had only 26% to 37% for Beverley Clark, a black, former Houston Council member, anti-abortion and supported by the Christian right, 23% for former legislator Paul Colbert and 13% for high-spending Carrin Patman, the daughter and granddaughter of a Texas congressmen. In the runoff, Bentsen, pro-choice on abortion, concentrated on crime issues, supporting boot camps and more death penalties, and won 64%-36%. Meanwhile, the Republican nomination was won by Dr. Eugene Fontenot, a Christian conservative, who spent more than any other candidate in the country that year, $4.7 million. Bentsen, spending a comparatively modest $973,000, attacked Fontenot as ''radical right,'' and called for a budget freeze with a pledge of universal health care coverage. Bentsen won 52%-45%, getting only 50% in Harris County but adding nearly 6,000 votes to his margin from the heavily black portion of Fort Bend County then in the district.
Bentsen's voting record has been just to the left of the midpoint of the House. He supported the moderate Blue Dog budget; he sought more money for medical research, space exploration, education--Houston priorities. In the 1997 balanced-budget deal, he included a requirement that Medicare managed-care plans contribute to medical-education costs in the same way as traditional Medicare--help for Houston's training hospitals. He called for ending the ethanol subsidy (not popular in oil-producing territory) and for indexing capital gains.
The August 1996 court-ordered redistricting threw Bentsen for a loop, and reintroduced a cast of familiar characters--though not Fontenot, who managed to lose the heavily Republican 8th in the December runoff. The chances of avoiding a December runoff became nil when Democrat Beverley Clark and 1992 Republican nominee Dolly Madison McKenna entered the race--two women at odds with most of their fellow party members on abortion. Bentsen led in November, but won just 34%; Clark and McKenna had 17% each, with McKenna ahead by 199 votes. Clark challenged the results, citing ballot irregularities; after a court dismissed her challenge, she endorsed McKenna two days before the runoff. Meanwhile, McKenna had been spending much time and energy trying to mollify abortion opponents. It failed to work. ''The last thing Republicans need is a high-profile woman parading around Congress, being the darling of the pro-abortion forces,'' Al Clements of the Texas Right to Life Committee told the Houston Chronicle. Democrats had only a 51%-49% lead in total votes in the November primary. But Bentsen won the December runoff 57%-43%. In 1998 Bentsen had a less challenging campaign. The Republican nominee was John Sanchez, a physician who defeated Beverley Clark 61%-39% in the Republican runoff. Interestingly, he opposed impeachment, at least until the national party urged that he review the evidence. Bentsen distanced himself from the Clinton scandal and won 58%-41%.
Bentsen has taken an important Democratic leadership post as federal chairman of IMPAC 2000, the national party's redistricting project; presumably he will work closely with Texas's Martin Frost, who headed the organization during the 1990 redistricting cycle. The organization faces the daunting task of preparing House Democrats for 2001 redistricting, when they face grim prospects in many key states. As a Democrat who has had to deal with the consequences of redistricting--and indeed who stands to be affected by it himself, since the Houston area can be divided up many ways--he seems well prepared for the project.
Probably Safe. The fact that Bentsen has survived just about everything thrown at him over the last three cycles, including one very bad political climate (1994) and one drastic remapping of the seat in 1996 shows that he will be pretty tough to beat in 2000.
- Pop. 1990: 563,510
- 0.7% rural;
8% age 65+;
- 63.4% White,
0.3% Amer. Indian,
18.2% Hispanic origin;
48.2% married couple families;
26.1% married couple fams. w. children;
53.9% college educ.;
median household income: $29,611;
per capita income: $15,056;
median gross rent: $337;
median house value: $63,300.
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