Election 2016

James Lloyd, Maria Espinoza Challenge Congressman John Culberson For West Houston Seat

The GOP primary in Texas 7th Congressional District pits an eight-term incumbent against a former White House national security aide and a tea party favorite.

Culberson addresses
Culberson addresses supporters at a poolside cookout at a home in West Houston

Texas’ 7th Congressional District cuts a swath across western Harris County. It’s been in Republican hands since future president George H.W. Bush won the seat in 1966. Its current congressman, John Culberson, is battling two challengers in his bid for the GOP nomination.

Houston Public Media's Coverage of Election 2016

Houston Public Media's Coverage of Election 2016

Culberson heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. The post oversees funding for NASA, which makes it an important one for a Houston congressman. But it’s the Justice Department portfolio that Culberson leans on to sell his conservative record.

Such was the theme of a speech Culberson recently gave at a private home in West Houston. “I’ve also notified (the Justice Department) that if they attempt to interfere with our Second Amendment rights — Obama just issued a whole series of rules on restricting our ability to buy and sell guns — and I’ve had to tell them that I’m going to start having to block your money,” Culberson said.

Taking a hardline stance against the Obama White House is usually a surefire way for a Republican candidate to shore up his base. But this year, it’s not enough to help Culberson avoid a challenge from his right.

Maria Espinoza is co-founder of The Remembrance Project, an anti-immigration group. She’s running against Culberson as a tea party candidate. I spoke with her at a campaign event at a West Houston bar.

Maria Espinoza
Maria Espinoza Congressional Candidate District 7

“Mr. Culberson’s vote for the omnibus (appropriations bill) funded the executive amnesty, the refugee resettlement program, and also sanctuary city policies,” Espinoza said.

The “executive amnesty” is a reference to President Obama’s program to let certain immigrants brought to the United States as children avoid deportation. The program is paid for through filing fees, not through the omnibus spending bill Culberson voted for. The omnibus itself blocked federal funds to any local law enforcement agencies that fail to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, as in so-called “sanctuary cities.” The omnibus also provided no funds for refugee resettlement in the U.S.

Charles Foster is chairman of Houston law firm Foster LLP. He served as an immigration policy advisor to President George W. Bush, as well as President Obama. “Anyone being admitted (to the U.S.) as a refugee has sat in a camp upwards of two years and has gone through process after process (of) detailed screening,” Foster says.

Espinoza alone would cause Culberson headaches. But it’s his other GOP opponent who represents a serious threat to Culberson’s reelection.

James Lloyd is an energy attorney and former national security aide in the George W. Bush White House. I spoke with him as he prepared to lead a block walk through West University. Unlike Espinoza, Lloyd isn’t restricting his attacks to whether Culberson is conservative enough.

“For one thing, he hasn’t been as engaged in our district as he should have been,” Lloyd said, “and we see that with state and with the local leaders here. For instance, mayors of the villages are backing my campaign because he hasn’t been engaged with them. He hasn’t addressed the issues. He hasn’t kept those lines of communication open.”

Endorsements are only one area where incumbents tend to have an edge in reelection fights. There’s also fund raising. But that’s another area where Lloyd is, literally, giving Culberson a run for his money.

James Lloyd speaking
James Lloyd

“Culberson only has a little over $200,000 in his war chest,” says Mark Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute, “and his principal rival in the race, James Lloyd, has about a third of that, which for a challenger is quite good.”

Culberson isn’t without his accomplishments. “He was the congressman here that made sure that all the monies and funds and resources came to bear on completing the I-10,” says supporter Jack O’Connor, a past Houston mayoral candidate.

But work on the Katy Freeway wrapped up more than seven years ago. Winning votes is very much a question of “What have you done for me lately?” The answer to that will determine whether Culberson gets to move on to the general election. At the least, the three-way contest ups the chances that the race will go to a May runoff, most likely between the incumbent and Lloyd.

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Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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