Insider Interview: Matt Angle's Lone Star Mission
The last week has been a busy one for Matt Angle. He's been fighting two simultaneous battles -- the first against the 2003 Texas congressional redistricting plan that drove his former boss from the House, and the second against the architect of that strategy -- Rep. Tom DeLay (R).
Angle isn't a household name to casual political observers, but he -- perhaps more than any other Democrat in Texas -- is responsible for the aggressive stance the party has taken toward DeLay and other Lone Star State Republicans since the 2004 election.
A longtime political operative for Texas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, Angle watched as Republicans rejiggered Frost's Dallas-area 24th District two years ago, forcing the powerful Democratic lawmaker to choose one of several unsavory districts in which to seek reelection in 2004. Frost ultimately chose the 32nd, which was held by Rep. Pete Sessions (R). In the most costly House election of 2004 (more than $9 million was spent by just the two candidates), Frost was defeated 54 percent to 44 percent -- one of four Texas Democrats to lose House seats in November 2004 (one other switched parties, and another retired).
On the outside looking in for the first time in more than two decades, Angle decided to form the Lone Star Project in early 2005, a federal political action committee that would serve as a fact-checker on the Republican Party on both the state and national levels.
"My belief was that -- particularly in Texas -- you had a situation where you had the Republican leaders failing," said Angle. "[They were] not just failing as political leaders but as leaders generally. My thought was to not just complain but to show people exactly why there was a problem."
Angle keeps the group's goal focused -- no national advertising campaign, rather it's all about "political and some policy analysis that is research-based," in his words.
Angle quickly got a chance to prove his mettle when Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle began looking into potential fundraising abuses by the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC), an offshoot of DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority federal PAC (ARMPAC).
At issue is $190,000 in corporate contributions by TRMPAC to the Republican National Committee in 2002, and the RNC's subsequent donation of that same amount of money to seven candidates for the Texas state House. Under Texas state law, corporate contributions cannot be made to state legislative races. Prosecutors have alleged that TRMPAC officials -- several of whom have close personal and professional ties to DeLay -- essentially sought to launder corporate contributions through the RNC.
Angle sprung into action, using the Lone Star Project as an information clearinghouse for all things DeLay. The organization "particularly became relevant as the unethical activities of Tom DeLay came more to light," Angle reflected. "Because I had followed that closely I knew quite a bit about what DeLay has done as it related to TRMPAC."
DeLay was ultimately indicted last fall by Earle on a charge of criminal conspiracy in relation to the TRMPAC donation. As a result, DeLay was forced to step down from his position as House majority leader (the chamber's second ranking post) and faces a serious reelection fight in his suburban Houston 22nd District. DeLay faces a four-way Republican primary tomorrow and must win more than 50 percent of the primary vote to avoid an April 11 runoff against the next-highest GOP vote-getter.
If, as expected, DeLay wins the nomination, he will face two former congressmen in the November general election. Former Rep. Nick Lampson, another Democrat who lost in 2004, is the likely Democratic nominee; former Republican Rep. Steve Stockman, who lost to Lampson in 1996 after just a single term in Congress, is plotting a run as an independent.
"DeLay is badly, badly damaged and the damage has not ended," said Angle. "I have every reason to believe that if he survives the primary he could lose in November in a district that is heavily Republican."
DeLay's ultimate political undoing could well be the result of the 2003 redistricting that he helped engineer, which slightly lowered the number of Republican voters in his own district, that he both engineered and helped push through the state legislature.
The redrawing of Texas's congressional lines came after Republicans gained control of the state House in 2002, giving them the chance to revisit the map drawn by a federal panel after the then-divided legislature deadlocked in 2001. Angle helped spearhead the appeals to that map, which were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court last Wednesday.
In the lead-up to the court hearing, Angle worked donors and the press in an attempt to convey the importance of redistricting in the political process. On the day the court heard oral arguments, Angle organized two press conferences to bracket the event. In the morning, the Lone Star Project sponsored a talk with a group of state and national lawmakers from Texas.
After the hearing, Angle convened another gathering, this time with Paul Smith, the attorney who argued the Democrats' case, and Gerry Hebert -- the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, which included the League of United Latin American Citizens and other groups. Frost and former Democratic Reps. Max Sandlin and Ken Bentsen attended the briefing. Smith and Hebert expressed optimism that the Court would invalidate either part of or the entire map, but The Post's own Charles Lane was skeptical about that prospect in his story the next day.
The budget for Angle's operation is miniscule when compared to some other political action committees in Washington. For the last six months of 2005, the Lone Star Fund (the fundraising arm of the Lone Star Project) brought in just $10,000 and ended the year with a meager $1,200 on hand.
Angle insists he never envisioned Lone Star as "a huge political operation," and its small size certainly creates a David vs. Goliath struggle against the Texas Republican Party, whose officials control every statewide office and 22 of the state's 32 congressional districts.
Angle remembers a time when Texas was so dominated by Democrats that the party primaries were the only races that mattered. That pendulum has nearly swung all the way to the opposite side now, with intra-party squabbles among Republicans generally more competitive than general elections -- especially in statewide contests.
What facilitated that 180-degree turn? According to Angle, it was a series of Democratic presidential nominees beginning in 1984 with Walter Mondale and stretching all the way through the Clinton administration who were "not acceptable" to Texas voters. Those candidates led moderate and conservative Texas Democrats to abandon the party in droves in the 1980s and 1990s. The transformation was made complete when Gov. George W. Bush was elected president in 2000.
The Democrats' road back to majority status in the state is not a short one, said Angle. He pointed to the 2010 gubernatorial race as a statement contest for the party. Between now and then "there has to be an intellectual transformation in Texas," Angle said. "Democrats have to re-earn the voters' trust."
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