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Congressional Incumbent Challenged in District 5

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: At times over the past few months, the race between the two leading District 5 candidates, Pete Sessions and Regina Montoya Coggins, has been a bit harsh. But in personal exchanges, like in yesterday?s only broadcast debate on KERA, the two have appeared civil and polite - Pete Sessions stressing his conservative record and beliefs in less government and talking tax cuts.

Pete Sessions, incumbent Republican, Congressional District 5: We?ve balanced the budget, brought more take home pay to people, and made sure they?re part of a process with local control. As a fiscal conservative, I?ve been active in Washington, have a 99% voting record in Congress.

Zeeble: Mr. Sessions, the incumbent in Congressional District 5 since 1996, is running for his third term. His fiscal positions mirror the party?s presidential candidate, George W. Bush, in his push for major tax cuts. Democratic challenger Regina Montoya Coggins calls herself a fiscal conservative as well. She thinks Sessions is weak when it comes to his position on social services. Her positions reflect those of her party?s presidential candidate, Al Gore, and says Social Security funding is a top priority.

Regina Montoya Coggins, Democrat candidate, Congressional District 5: We must use the budget surplus to ensure that we shore up Social Security. And what I want to do is make sure it?s a priority. It has to be a lock box. We have a commitment to those who pay into the system, a commitment to future generations that Social Security be there.

Zeeble: Libertarian Ken Ashby, a retired semi-conductor and microprocessor engineer, calls the current Social Security funding plan a pay-as-you-go pyramid scheme: the current generation of workers pays for the older generations? benefits. He says the system cannot be fixed unless taxes dramatically rise or benefits get slashed.

Ken Ashby, Libertarian candidate, Congressional District 5: What Libertarians want is to give people the choice to opt out of Social Security if they desire. This?ll remove the liability from government and will give people freedom to decide what?s best for themselves.

Zeeble: On the issue of health care coverage, Montoya Coggins and Sessions get a little more heated.

Montoya Coggins: This is a very big difference between me and Mr. Sessions because he?s out of touch with our district.

Zeeble: Montoya Coggins says too many District 5 seniors can no longer plan their own future, thanks to soaring prescription drug costs. She wants to help with a broader Medicare plan than what?s currently in place. It would cover prescription drugs. She accuses Mr. Sessions of siding with pharmaceutical companies, not low-income Texans in need.

Montoya Coggins: Too many people are saying they?re being dropped by big HMO?s. They get letters from HMO?s. They don?t even have a telephone number that they can call them and ask them to reinstate coverage.

Zeeble: Montoya Coggins says the prescription drug issue is resonating through the large 5th district. Cynthia Gonzalez, who works for AT&T, agrees with the Democrat. Gonzalez heard Montoya Coggins and Sessions at last week?s public forum sponsored by the North East Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

Cynthia Gonzalez, Montoya Coggins supporter: She?s really concerned about prescription drugs. We all have elderly parents. And I think that?s an issue we?ve not paid attention to. I?m semi-retired, getting close to Social Security. That?s going to be a real important issue to me.

Zeeble: Pete Sessions calls his challenger?s plan a big, expensive liberal government program that?s unnecessary. He favors a prescription plan that pharmaceutical companies back, and blames the federal government for the thousands of north Texans who?ve been dropped by HMO?s.

Sessions: They were not being reimbursed properly by the government. The government also paid them late. This will continue to be a problem. What we need to do is determine what that reimbursement rate will be, make it so it?s based on actual expenses, and have a chance to reimburse them properly. Zeeble: Sessions? plans ? and general political philosophy ? all sound good to Dallas attorney Kurt Kennedy. Kennedy also heard the representative at last weeks? public forum.

Kurt Kennedy, Dallas attorney and Sessions supporter: Montoya Coggins is a hard-core leftist Democrat in my view, that will increase the size and scope of federal government. And will support increased taxes, things like that. The federal government is a government of limited powers. If you want to enact social service programs, those need to be enacted at the local level. It?s not the job of the federal government to enact these programs.

Zeeble: But in areas where Montoya Coggins thinks Sessions is weak, she?ll continue to favor federal intervention. Education?s one of them. The Democrat wants federal dollars to fix up crumbling public schools and modernize them for ever-increasing high tech needs. Sessions stresses local control of funding, blaming federal regulations in part for school problems. Ken Ashby?s Libertarian party reflects a position some Republicans were touting just four years ago, but no more.

Ashby: The best thing Congress can do is just get out of education. There?s no where in the constitution that gives the federal government the authority over schools.

Zeeble: Ken Ashby, though, acknowledges his views are not those of the majority, and he cannot win. Mr. Sessions believes that, once again, he will, though he knows Montoya Coggins is a more serious contender than the Libertarian.

Sessions: This district is a conservative Republican district. It?s been pitched as a 50/50 district. We?re going to find out on election day.

Zeeble: That claim of an even split between Democrats and Republicans is based on history, according to Mary Clare Jalonick, political reporter for Congressional Quarterly. For one thing, the district had been represented for years by Democrat John Bryant. So, the argument goes, the district isn?t that conservative. What?s more, even when Governor Bush won big two years ago, down-ballot Democrats still did well in District 5.

Mary Clare Jalonick, writer, Congressional Quarterly: Even though it is Republican-leaning, it did go for Paul Hobby and John Sharp in ?98, when Bush won by such a huge margin. It?s definitely a swing district, even though it's more Republican-leaning.

Zeeble: Jalonick says Victor Morales, who ran against Sessions in 1998, essentially campaigned with no money, yet still registered 44% of the votes. So it?s understandable, she says, Democrats see the seat as vulnerable. Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington, Alan Saxe, agrees the seat may be in play, but says the odds must go to the incumbent. More than 90% of incumbents retain their seats.

Alan Saxe, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Texas at Arlington: If I had to bet, I would just guess she?s the underdog. But she?s waging a tough race and raising a lot of money. This race has become aggressive and I imagine could be close on election day.

Zeeble: Some broadcast ads have been contentious - Sessions accused Montoya Coggins of harboring liberal, Harvard views soft on crime. Montoya Coggins blamed Sessions for ignoring the ill and elderly. Those spots added up in the expensive north Texas market. Montoya Coggins has spent one and half million dollars so far, more than Mr. Sessions. But his campaign expects costs may exceed a million dollars. Third party business interests have also invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in anti-Montoya Coggins ads. As always, the election will come down to turnout. So far, early voting is breaking records. Most assume those votes are heavily Republican. Early voting ends Nov 3rd. Election day is Tuesday the 7th. For KERA 90.1 I?m Bill Zeeble.