STATE & REGION

Where’s Carter?

Critics say longtime U.S. Rep. John R. Carter is isolated, unresponsive to constituents

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Congressman John Rice Carter, the 75-year-old Republican incumbent who represents Texas' 31st Congressional District, which includes Cedar Park and Leander, has amassed considerable power during his 14 years in Washington.

However, some of his Democratic critics say the influential chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee has increasingly used that power to isolate and insulate himself from the constituents he represents.

"You can't get in to see him without an appointment, and yet his office won't give you an appointment," said Christine Eady Mann, a Cedar Park physician who filed as a Democrat challenger to Congressman Carter earlier this year before having to suspend her campaign for personal medical reasons.

"Unfortunately, his office is indifferent to hearing from voters that disagree with him," Mann said. "Mr. Carter will not hold town meetings, and he doesn't publicize his schedule so voters don't have a chance to engage with him on issues that matter to them."

Some 300 Williamson County residents held a live town hall meeting in Cedar Park in February. Like many members of Congress across the country, Carter has not held or attended a town hall in person over any of the recent Congressional recesses — the time such town halls are typically held. His office told media that a scheduling conflict prevented him from appearing at the Feb. 22 town hall. A cardboard cutout of Carter was used to represent the Congressman at the event.

Carter did hold an hour-long ‘telephone town hall’ in March, during which he answered 13 questions that had been approved by his staff in advance. Following that call, comments on Carter’s Facebook page were mostly critical of the proceeding.    

Lack of visible campaign activity

Despite the intensity of the attacks against him, and the fact that Carter's three current Democrat challengers have been working around the clock for months, the veteran legislator and former Williamson County judge has been noticeably inactive this year.

While many of his veteran incumbent colleagues have built up multi-million dollar war chests in preparation for anticipated hard campaigning in the 2018 off year elections, the John Carter for Congress Committee had a relatively small $454,000 cash on hand as of June 30, according to the Federal Elections Commission.  

That current cash balance includes $400,000 cash on hand left over from his successful 2016 campaign. The Congressman's campaign committee, which is located in Suite 304 at 1717 N. I-35 in Round Rock — right next door to his district congressional office in Suite 303 — has reported raising $343,000 this election cycle, but has spent $292,000 during the same period.

Carter's time in the 31st District has been limited, in part because of his official duties in Washington. In addition to the periodic telephone town halls he has conducted, the Congressman’s office rarely sends out newsletters, something done frequently in other congressional offices as a way of staying in touch with constituents. Media interviews are also rare, but Carter's office does send out at least a half dozen emailed news releases each month.

The pace of Carter's activity has caused some pundits to wonder if he will seek reelection in 2018.  

"Congressman Carter’s limited fundraising and lack of district activity may signal that he intends to retire rather than contest the seat again," said Matthew Wilson, SMU political science professor. 

However, Carter told the Williamson County Republican Women's Club on Aug. 18 that he "absolutely" intends to run.

"If he does, in fact, choose to run for re-election, he would be the odds-on favorite to win," Wilson said. "The 31st District leans pretty heavily Republican, and President Trump’s popularity has not sagged as badly in Texas as it has in some other parts of the country. Also, minority and youth turnout tends to be lower in midterm elections, providing a boost for a conservative Republican like Carter."

Williamson County Republican Chairman Bill Fairbrother said all of the criticism and comments about Carter's apparent district inactivity and the lack of town hall meetings with constituents are overblown.

"During the August recess, I heard him speak to at least five Republican meetings," He said. "He is also speaking to Chambers of Commerce and those kinds of non-partisan community groups. This year, some on the left have had a history of disrupting events, so you can't blame him if he does not want to hold those kinds of public events."

Fairbrother said he believes Republicans will hold the seat come next November.

"The vitriol and lack of tolerance that is being heard is really troubling," He said. "The 31st is a solid Republican seat and the district as a whole is Republican.”

Communications

A frequent criticism of Congressman Carter is that it is difficult to get his office to return calls from constituents, as well as the media. The Hill Country News tried to contact the congressman or his office in 15 separate calls from June 4 through August 30 to no reply. 

Congressman Carter's office issued a written statement to the newspaper last Thursday.

"Central Texas is one of the fastest growing regions in the country, and we have worked hard to address the infrastructure needs and priorities of the region. Investing in infrastructure connects our community to one another, while ensuring safety and peace of mind," Carter said in the release. "Working with local leaders, we ensured the expansion of FM 1431, Highway 79, and I-35 in Salado. The expansion of Highway 195 now connects Georgetown to Killeen, providing critical access to Fort Hood from Williamson County."  

The congressman's statement also spoke to his efforts to improve higher education in the 31st District.

News releases from Carter's office this year have followed a similar theme, touting appropriations he has supported to get funding for veterans, the military and homeland security. He has also issued releases supporting the border wall with Mexico, supporting a crackdown on illegal immigrants and praising the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

14 Years in Office

Carter, who is the only congressman to ever serve the 31st District, was first elected in 2002 to serve the new district drawn after the 2000 census. The district covers northwest Austin, Round Rock and Georgetown and runs north to Belton and the Ft. Hood area, which has become a political strength for the conservative Republican. Carter won reelection in 2016 with 57 percent of the vote.

His Democrat opponent two years ago, Mike Clark, a geospatial engineer from Georgetown, is running again in 2018. Also running are two former military officers who may have some appeal to the active duty military and retired military families who live in the Ft. Hood area.

On the ballot with Clark in the March 6, 2018 Democratic Primary will also be Kent Lester of Cedar Park, a former U.S. Army officer and former educator. Additionally, former U.S, Air Force officer Mary Jennings Hegar of Round Rock, an Afghanistan War hero and author, is seeking the Democratic nomination. Carter is expected to have nominal opposition in the GOP Primary from Mike Sweeney of Georgetown, who also ran in 2016.

Whether Carter's apparent lack of access will matter to the voters is something that will be decided in the 2018 election. But his challengers have said they believe it shows a disrespect for those who elected him, and it is central to their campaigns. And others seem to be taking notice.

"I admire people who dedicate their life to public service," said Brian Cronin, a northwest Austin businessman who lives in the 31st District. "Part of the job, however, is listening to their concerns, and fighting to address their needs as new laws are written. By not returning calls, Congressman Carter is taking the voters for granted and dodging his duties as a U.S. Representative."

Cedar Park Council member Heather Jefts, a Democrat, said, "As an elected official, I am directly responsible and accountable to my constituents. I expect the same level of engagement and accountability from my higher elected officials as well. Elected officials need to be engaged with and work with the electorate in order to understand the issues directly affecting those we serve." 

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