Barton's Apology to BP Opens Door for Opponent

David Cozad and Joe Barton
David Cozad and Joe Barton

By David Cozad’s own admission, hardly anyone knew his name before last week. And that’s still mostly true, though it may not matter. For all practical purposes, he is That Guy Running Against Joe Barton.

Two little words — “I apologize,” uttered by Barton, the Republican congressman representing Arlington and a large swath of the Fort Worth suburbs, to Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, the company daily soiling the Gulf of Mexico with crude oil — have upgraded the status of Cozad’s campaign from Sure Loser to Longer-Than-Longshot. Calling himself a Green Dog Democrat focused on reforming the energy industry, he newly brims with optimism. “I may be the only freshman Democrat in Congress next year,” he said on Monday.

Before Barton’s roundly rebuked comments at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Cozad’s campaign had been a study in anonymous futility. At his local Democratic Senate District Convention in March, the pale, bearded 62-year-old was asked to keep his remarks to two minutes. As brevity does not come easily to him, he subsequently turned to YouTube to post the nine-minute speech he would have given, covering such arcane subjects as mid-term elections of 1934. Uploaded May 3, his soliloquy, which he says he considered "too important to throw away," hasn’t exactly gone viral: A total of seven people have viewed it to date, including this reporter.

Cozad hopes the Barton backlash will mushroom into an anybody-but-Joe uprising from the grassroots. A 25-year incumbent previously considered unbeatable, Barton stepped in a pile of political backlash in expressing his view that BP had been the victim of a government “shakedown” from the Obama administration, which worked out a deal with the company to put up $20 billion as a down payment on the oil-spill damage.

Calls to Barton’s congressional office for comment on Cozad's campaign were not returned, and his campaign voicemail box isn’t taking any more messages.

As an underdog candidate with, as Cozad puts it, “virtually no income” — going up against a big name with millions in the bank — the incident brought an inkling of hope. “Joe’s little foot-in-mouth disease has basically put him in a position where a lot of his money has been neutralized,” Cozad says. “The big question is, how much money am I going to get?”

There’s precedent for such incumbent gaffes proving a fundraising boon to challengers. After South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during an address by President Obama, his general election opponent raked in $750,000 in 48 hours. Cozad’s financial bump has been more of a molehill — he says he’s received $4,311.21 since Barton’s apology and is expecting another “couple thousand dollars” worth of checks in the mail.

A crack in that wall

A former schoolteacher and software engineer, Cozad entered the political arena six years ago with one goal in mind: defeating Barton. He served as chief of staff on Morris Meyer’s 2004 bid against Barton, which the incumbent won by a margin of 66 percent to 33 percent. He also worked as a campaign consultant for Steve Bush, who lost the Democratic primary in 2008 to Barton's eventual opponent that November, Ludwig Otto.

With his nemesis up for re-election yet again in 2010, Cozad approached Steve Maxwell, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chair, and said, “Do we have some youngblood hot rod ready to go to take on Joe Barton? Because I’m ready to help him.” Maxwell responded that everyone who considered running took a look at Barton and the makeup of the district, kicked the tires and walked away.

The Cook Political Report classifies Barton’s district as “Solid Republican” — in fact, it’s the 56th-most-Republican district of the 435 nationwide. Barton’s worst election-night result since taking office was 60 percent in 2006. His pockets are deep, with the donations and support of some of the nation’s most powerful industries. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, individuals and PACs associated with the oil and gas industry have given him $1,440,380 since 1990, making him their top recipient in the U.S. House.

Like Dick Cheney searching for someone to round out George W. Bush’s presidential ticket, Cozad eventually realized he was the man he’d been looking for. And now he thinks he might actually have a chance.

“They built a big stone wall around Joe with money from oil companies, gas companies, coal companies, pharmaceuticals,” Cozad says. “This gaffe in front of the whole world put a crack in that wall. Now it’s my job to go through that crack.”

Cozad’s not alone in holding out hope. Bryon Severns, the Libertarian candidate for the seat, is also considering saddling up to ride into the breach. “I didn’t think there was much possibility, so I hadn’t been doing anything,” he says. “Now, I’m thinking that maybe I should.”

Still, even Barton's fiercest critics admit that the chances of him losing his seat are low at best — which may be the only reason he made the “gaffe” in the first place. “He’s in such a safe district, he was not restrained by doing anything other than speaking his true mind,” says Matt Angle, a Democratic consultant and former U.S. House staffer who runs the Texas Democratic Trust. “Remember that that district was drawn by Tom DeLay for the purposes of electing a Republican no matter how inept they are.”

On top of that, this political season is widely expected to favor Republicans — even Joe Wilson, his opponent’s post-“You lie!” windfall aside, should easily win another term in November. And the fact that Cozad is vocal in his support of Obama won’t exactly help in a district that went 60-40 for John McCain in 2008 and in a state where the president's disapproval rating is 60 percent. Cozad disagrees, of course. “Obama’s going to come around,” he says. “Everyone says [the oil spill] is his Katrina because it’s in the same geographical location. I think it will be more like his 9/11.”

Ultimately, Cozad’s time in the limelight may be a testament to the virtues of running with the expectation of losing than rather than not running at all.  In campaign season, as former Viriginia Senator George Allen can tell you, it’s hard to predict when a “macaca” moment might occur.

It was, after all, the Texas pol cited by Angle, Tom DeLay, who had to drop out of a supposed cakewalk of a race in 2006 amid allegations of corruption, allowing former Democrat Congressman Nick Lampson to win an unlikely term in Congress representing blood-red Fort Bend County. By contrast, when the Democrats failed to run a candidate this year against state Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, there was no one there to enjoy the unforeseen spoils when he dropped out unexpectedly due to health concerns, creating an open seat.

And to hear Cozad tell it, a major Barton foul-up was only a matter of time. “I’ve been watching Joe,” Cozad says. “I’ve been noticing that deterioration of his thinking processes. I knew he was going to get in the public eye someday where his staff can’t protect him, and he’s going to say something. Well, he did.” 

In his latest YouTube video, a clean-shaven Cozad explores — in detail, of course — Barton’s ties to the oil industry. Actually recorded nearly a week before Barton’s apology, it lasts just under eight minutes. As of press time, it’s been viewed by nearly 200 people, which is better than seven — but probably not enough to win an election.

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