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Phil Gramm Engineers Key Endorsement for Former Aide in DeLay’s Old District

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Redstate.com, an influential conservative Web site, has endorsed Pete Olson, a former aide to Phil Gramm and onetime chief of staff for John Cornyn, for the Republican nomination in the 22nd congressional district. Seven Republicans are vying for the right to challenge Democrat Nick Lampson. Most prominent among these are state representative Robert Talton of Pasadena and Shelley Sekula Gibbs, who won a special election in 2006 following DeLay’s resignation to complete his term. Dean Hrbacek, a former mayor of Sugar Land, is also in the race. The list of opponents in Wikipedia does not include Talton, but his office confirmed that he is definitely running.

A word about the race: Unfortunately for Republicans, their field in District 22 is not as strong as it might be, which explains why Olson is in the race. Two strong candidates who were expected to run, Sugar Land mayor David Wallace and Harris County tax collector Paul Bettencourt, opted to stay on the sidelines. Sekula Gibbs has raised the most money, but her brief 2006 stint in Congress was such a disaster (as Erick, the interviewer on the podcast points out, DeLay’s entire staff walked out) that Republicans must have worried that she might self-destruct if she won the nomination to face Lampson. Talton is nutty conservative on the social issues, but his problem is that he is too cozy with the trial lawyers. Hrbacek can’t count on solid support in Sugar Land because he was defeated for re-election as mayor by Wallace and the two camps are not friendly. Republicans regard this seat, which includes South Harris County, east Fort Bend County, and small pieces of Galveston and Brazoria counties, as their number-one target nationally. It should be a Republican seat, and I think Bettencourt or Wallace would have won handily. But there has been a lot of demographic change in the urban fringes of this district, and I think Lampson has an outside chance to hold it, particularly if the Republicans don’t have a strong challenger.

Redstate did a podcast with Olson, which I have transcribed and will post below. As you will see, Gramm’s fingerprints are all over this endorsement. The question is, how active will Gramm be on behalf of his former aide? He is vice-president of UBS, a major investment bank, and is in a position to raise a lot of Wall Street money for Olson. Mailers with his endorsement would also be an effective tool. Otherwise, Olson is unknown in the district. He is from Seabrook, a town of around 10,000 on Galveston Bay in extreme southeast Harris County, the opposite end of the district from DeLay’s base in Houston’s densely populated southwestern suburbs.

The reason that I have decided to post the entire podcast, around eight minutes worth, aside from introducing readers to Olson, is that I’m interested in readers’ reactions to it. I find it quite dismaying. This is not because of Olson, who has admirable personal qualities, though he comes across as a bit on the raw side for a candidate. Rather, my concern is the quality of political discourse on the Web. The Internet is supposed to be a medium that can transform democracy, but I don’t think that readers will come away transformed. It’s just standard litmus-test politics.

The endorsement is headlined, “RedState Supports Pete Olson For Congress.” It reads:

In the race to retake the TX-22 District and unseat Democrat Rep. Nick Lampson, there is a long list of local Republicans who are vying for the nomination. This is a Republican seat, and the right candidate should win in the general. After much consideration, we’ve decided that we agree with Phil Gramm, as we usually do. We strongly endorse Republican Pete Olson. Though a young man, Pete has had an impressive career – first as an aviator in the Navy, then working for Gramm in Washington, followed by a stint as chief of staff for Sen. John Cornyn, one of the chamber’s rising stars. Pete’s a local kid made good – went to High School in Clear Lake, graduated from Rice – and he’s been endorsed by Gramm and Bill Archer. He is a great father, a solid conservative, and will be an excellent congressman.

As of today, Pete is running second in the money race behind Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. We don’t need to remind you what a disaster she was in her brief stint in Washington – let’s just say it takes a lot to make a seasoned congressional staff just walk out on you.

Pete is the polar opposite of Sekula-Gibbs on this point, and has the maturity and skill to lead in Washington. As they say: when you send someone to get stuff done on Capitol Hill, it helps if they know where the bathrooms are.

For strong, conservative leadership – and someone who can beat Lampson – we strongly endorse Pete Olson, and we encourage you to donate to the cause. Pete’s campaign raised more than $60k online last month – let’s bump that number higher.

Here is my transcript of the podcast. Olson was interviewed by “Erick.” Verbatim accuracy is not guaranteed. The item has a link to the podcast. I’m going to reserve my comments until the end.

Erick: The 22nd congressional district of Texas was Tom DeLay’s district. After he left, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs decided to run as a write-in candidate [note to readers: she ran as a write-in in the general election, on the same day that she won the special election to serve out DeLay’s term] despite the fact that no one could spell her name. She lost it to Nick Lampson, who now holds the seat. Today, we’re talking to our choice to beat Nick Lampson, Pete Olson. [music swells] You worked for Phil Gramm, who is pretty much a god for Redstate readers.

Olson: Thank you for having me. You’re correct. I was fortunate to spend five years working for Phil Gramm on defense issues and other things, and to my mind he’s a living conservative legend, a phenomenal, phenomenal man, a man of principle, and fortunately a man who is supporting my bid for Congress here–in fact, he’s going to be in town here in Houston this weekend for an event. I’m looking forward to seeing him again.

Erick: The seat you’re running for, as everybody knows, is Tom DeLay’s old seat that Nick Lampson now has, and it seems like half the Republicans in Texas are running for the seat.

Olson: It is a crowded primary right now, about seven of us running for it, but you’ve hit the bottom line–at the end of the day, Mr. Lampson is representing this district, and it’s a conservative district, and his values do not reflect the values of the people of this district. When Ms. Pelosi jumps, he says “How high?” and that’s not what the people of this district want, and that’s why I’m back here in my home district, running for Congress.

Erick: You know, it’s an interesting contrast. I’m over in Georgia 8, where Jim Marshall, a Democrat, is the congressman in a Republican district, and he was one of only two Democrats who refused to go along with the Democrats and the unions in continuing to push this S-CHIP socialized medicine plan that Pelosi wanted, and she was able to browbeat Lampson into doing it.

Olson: Yes sir. There have been numerous instances during his short tenure back in Congress where she has asked for his vote on positions that don’t reflect the values of the conservatives in this district, and he has willingly done that. He has voted, as you said, the S-CHIP, he has voted to give federal benefits to illegal immigrants — changed his vote in fact to do that — and he has been an opponent of the war for the most part.

Erick: What are the big local issues that are affecting your race?

Olson: Well, the big local issue, and it’s a national issue, but it certainly has a tremendous impact all around the district, and people are talking about it, is the illegal immigration and the failure of the federal government to solve that, and anybody who has been paying attention, I believe, realizes that the federal government is a federal issue [accurately transcribed–pb], and the federal government has no credibility on this issue, and they need to establish some, and the way we’re going to do that is by securing our borders, making sure we know who’s coming across our borders and why, and also enforcing our laws. We are a country that is run by the rule of law and we’ve gotten away from that, particularly the immigration issue. As you know, back in 1986, President Reagan, the great man that he is, worked a deal to give amnesty to the three million illegals that were here in return for enforcement provisions, so this would not happen again. Well, here we are twenty years later, and we’ve got maybe four times the number of people, and that’s really scary in a post 9/11 world.

Erick: You’re absolutely right about that. It’s absurd. Now, I’m not going to call you a nerd, but I will point out that you went to Rice … WE INTERRUPT THIS TRANSCRIPT FOR A MESSAGE FROM OUR SPONSOR: I’D LIKE TO SEE WHAT ERICK COULD DO IN SCIENCE-ENGINEERING MATH 100 … went on to law school after that, then went into the military. How long?

Olson: I was a pilot in the Navy for nine years.

Erick: I guess I can’t call you a nerd since you went on to do something cool after getting out of Rice.

Olson: It wasn’t Top Gun, I flew P-3s, which is a land-based submarine hunting aircraft, but had a great time doing it, two overseas deployments to the Far East and one to the Persian Gulf, and it was just a great, great time in my career. Truth be told, if I didn’t have a family, and two little ones at home, I would still be serving this country in the Navy. I just had a great, great experience.

Erick: What do you think about the situation shaping up in Texas where this multimillionaire running against your former boss Cornyn has decided to drop out?

Olson: Well, I think that’s a recognition probably of the strength of Senator John Cornyn. I was his chief of staff, starting with the day he got elected, and those were incredibly big shoes for anybody to fill, but if you have to have somebody come in and fill them, John Cornyn’s your man. I think he has done just a great, great job of representing the values of conservatives and Texans in Washington. He’s gotten, as you know, elected to the leadership of the Senate in his fourth year, still in his first term, and he’s been a go-to guy for our party and our values up there, so I think Mr. Watts’ getting out, he looked at the writing on the wall, he said, “This isn’t going to work out well for me in the end.

Erick: Now, Pete Olson, let me give you the round robin questions here. Are you pro-life?

Olson: I am pro-life, yes sir.

Erick: Are you pro-traditional marriage?

Olson: I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Erick: And are you pro-Second Amendment?

Olson: I am pro-Second Amendment. The Second Amendment, I believe, is an individual right, as opposed to a collective right, and I’m a lifetime member of the NRA.

Erick: That’s all fantastic. I don’t want to keep you on here, but you’re going to have a lot of people listening to this, and if there’s one thing you want people to know about you, who are listening to this across America, who are thinking of adopting your district, since they don’t have a race in theirs, what do you want them to know?

Olson: Well, we’re happy to have them come on down here to Texas. As Senator Gramm says, nobody ever lost money betting on the future of Texas, and I just want them to know I’m in this race because I’m concerned about my kids and my future, and that means I’m concerned about their kids and their future. I don’t want any children here in the future to grow up fearing global terror and terrorists, and I want them to have all the economic freedoms I’ve enjoyed, and the biggest threat to that is not having the will to confront the terrorists and meet them wherever they are, just like we did communism in the Cold War, and in terms of economic freedom, the biggest threat to that is, unfortunately, the federal government and our own financial policies, and we need to change it. So, that’s what I stand for, and again, anyone who wants to come on down here and help take back this district from Nick Lampson, we want ’em. They’re welcome. One other little plug. My Web site is www.olsonforcongress.com. [music swells]

My comments:

This was a juvenile interview. It didn’t appear that Erick had put any work into thinking of how to make Olson look good, aside from cheerleading (“That’s all fantastic!”). It’s one thing to ask softball questions. It’s another to ask pointless softball questions, like the one about Mikal Watts. That didn’t lead anywhere, and it got Olson talking about John Cornyn instead of himself and his ideas. If you’re going to do a podcast interview, one of the purposes of which is to raise money for the interviewee, you should at least think of ways to make your guy look good.

The low point was the responsive readings. “Are you pro-life?” “I am pro-life.” Of course Olson is pro-life; he wouldn’t have gotten Redstate’s endorsement otherwise. Olson is obviously a bright guy, and not just because he went to Rice. Phil Gramm didn’t hire dummies. Dummies don’t get to be chief of staff to United States senators. But he came across as the rookie in electoral politics that he is. That wasn’t all Erick’s fault. Those “yes sirs” made Olson sound like a subordinate talking to a superior, rather than a leader.

Don’t get me wrong. Olson clearly has an outstanding record of service to his country, both in the military and in the government. He’s the kind of person any father would be proud to have raised. But he’s an aspiring politician now, facing several experienced rivals in an election that’s just four months away, and he’s going to have to do better than come across as a cookie-cutter candidate.

The thing that most concerns me about Olson’s candidacy is his career as a staffer. It seems to me that there is an increasing trend of staffers seeking public office, in Austin and in Washington, and I don’t think it’s a good trend. Staffers, by definition, are followers, not leaders. These days, they tend to be ideologues (especially if they worked for a strong ideological figure like Phil Gramm). Worst of all, their careers take place inside the bubble of Capitol Hill. They deal with lobbyists and other staffers. They never see real people. They never learn what real people think — or how they think. People who have run successfully for public office have a broader perspective, because they have diverse constituencies. There’s a well known story about Sam Rayburn’s reaction to Lyndon Johnson’s expressing his awe at the intelligence of President Kennedy’s Ivy League advisers: “I’d feel a lot better if one of them had run for sheriff.”

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