By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
Vice President Dick Cheney became the highest-ranked public official to visit Abilene in 23 years Friday, campaigning for Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, even while the courts decide whether Abilene will be in Neugebauer’s district.
Cheney told a crowd of several hundred Republican supporters at the Abilene Civic Center that Neugebauer is essential to helping pass initiatives sought by the Bush administration.
“My main concern is to make certain that Randy Neugebauer gets another term in the United States House of Representatives from the people of West Texas,” Cheney said.
Neugebauer, who was elected last year in the 19th District, is running against 17th District incumbent Charlie Stenholm, D-Abilene, in a district created by the Texas Legislature in October. State Democrats, however, have challenged the map in court, leaving candidates in limbo.
The reception featured a number of local politicians, including Abilene’s representatives in the state Legislature: Rep. Bob Hunter and Sen. Troy Fraser, both Republicans. Mayor Grady Barr, Big Spring Mayor Russ McEwen, Gov. Rick Perry’s parents and members of the Abilene City Council also attended.
Cheney touched on a number of topics of national interest, including the improving economy and the war on terrorism. However, the crowd’s biggest response came after criticism of the Senate’s filibuster against Bush’s judicial nominees.
“It’s time for the U.S. Senate to get about the business of confirming President Bush’s nominees,” he said to rousing applause.
Neugebauer reminded the audience that his parents lived in Abilene for more than 30 years, an attempt to remove any perception that the Lubbock-based representative is an outsider.
“As long as I’m in Congress, I’m not paying attention to district lines,” he told reporters after the reception. “I’m going to represent all of West Texas.”
Those district lines, redrawn after three special sessions of the Texas Legislature and much partisan wrangling, are being contested in federal court, meaning Cheney’s campaign stop could become moot.
Redistricting was widely and strongly opposed in West Texas, a sentiment reflected in the stances of local Republicans attending the fund-raiser.
State Rep. Hunter, vice president emeritus of the university, said his appearance was not an endorsement of Neugebauer over Stenholm, but rather a show of support for Cheney.
“I’m here because the vice president’s office asked me to be here,” said Hunter, one of only five House Republicans to vote against the Republican redistricting plan every time. “He’s known of our work, so we’re very pleased he asked us.”
Fraser was one of only two Republican state senators to vote against the final redistricting plan, but he said he endorses Neugebauer.
“I was opposed to the way lines were drawn, but the lines are drawn now,” Fraser said. “I support the party.”
Stenholm has said he will campaign in his old 17th District until the courts rule otherwise and criticized Cheney’s visit for its political nature partly at taxpayer expense.
“I first heard that the vice president was coming to Dyess [Air Force Base], then going to do a political event,” Stenholm told Scripps-Howard News Service. “I thought that was great; I was ready to welcome him. … Then I found out it was purely a political event, at a tremendous cost to taxpayers.”
About a dozen university students volunteered at the behest of the campus branch of College Republicans, said chapter president Casey Kelley, senior communication major from Abilene.
Many students who attended said they did so because of a love for politics and to hear the vice president, rather than any allegiance to Neugebauer or the Republican Party.
“I am very passionate about politics,” said Melanie Booker, sophomore political science major from Sugar Land. “I came mainly as a spectator to hear a vice president speak and to listen to this Congressman whom I’ve never heard of before.”
The last time an official of Cheney’s caliber came to Abilene was during the 1980 presidential election, when President Jimmy Carter visited during his losing campaign against Ronald Reagan.