By Gromer Jeffers Jr
Marc Veasey is a big sports fan, but one team more than others wins his affection: the Democratic Party.
The state representative from Fort Worth once gave up a job in the sports department of the local newspaper to volunteer for U.S. Rep. Martin Frost.
"I always wanted to be involved in politics," Veasey said. "As much as I love sports, the love I have for politics is even greater. And I love being a Democrat."
And the toughest game in politics, redistricting, has defined Veasey's career. The heated 2003 redrawing of congressional lines led to his first shot at elected office. Now, the creation of a new U.S. House seat in Dallas and Tarrant counties -- the result of a political and legal fight Veasey was heavily involved in -- is giving him a chance to move up to Congress himself to represent the 33rd District.
In 2003, Glenn Lewis, a Democrat who represented Texas House District 95 in Tarrant County, was a captain for House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, as Republicans in the Legislature reshuffled the congressional deck to elect more Republicans. State House Democrats, desperate to kill the plan, fled Austin for Oklahoma to prevent a vote. But Lewis stayed behind.
When the redistricting plan was in place, many of Lewis' constituents in a mostly black district were being represented in Congress by conservative Republican Michael Burgess of Lewisville rather than Frost, who lost his seat the next year.
"A lot of people were really upset and angry about Burgess representing the community," Veasey said during an interview at his Fort Worth campaign office. "People in the community thought it was blatant discrimination."
Veasey easily beat Lewis for the state House seat the same year that his mentor lost, symbolizing the cruel twists that redistricting can take. Now, if Veasey wins the congressional seat, he would be representing much the same area as Frost.
"He led the fight to undo the Republican redistricting plan. If the Republicans would have been successful, there would be no new minority district in North Texas," Frost said. "Marc's been a leader across the board."
Veasey, 41, would also become only the second black representative from North Texas and the first from Tarrant County.
Critics question whether the soft-spoken Veasey has the grit to be a leader. And they say his seemingly disciple-like relationship with Frost is troubling.
"He has to show what he's done in the past. Has he been an independent voice for the community?" said Roy Williams, a Dallas activist who has fought for minority voting rights. "He appears to be anointed by a group of people to take on this challenge."
Veasey's supporters see him as a leader for the next generation in North Texas.
"Every now and then you see one come around," said Tom Carlin, vice president of the Texas AFL-CIO. "He's got the spark in his eyes. He's going somewhere."
When Veasey has a long or challenging day at work or on the campaign trail, he retreats to his Fort Worth home to watch old television Westerns like Gunsmoke; Have Gun, Will Travel; Bat Masterson; or The Big Valley.
They remind him of his childhood at his grandparents' home near Lake Como in Fort Worth.
Veasey's mother, Connie Cash, moved him and his younger brother there when she and his father divorced. For some time, they were jammed into the home with his cousins. Even afterward, times were tough.
"We grew up a lot of different places," he said. "We moved a lot. I probably went to seven different elementary schools."
His grandfather, the Rev. Robert English, was a Baptist minister who founded a local church, and Veasey spent a lot of time with him watching Westerns, shaping his faith and learning about life and politics.
As a boy, he also saw a White House press briefing on television and was captivated by the skills of the press secretary.
He asked his uncle, the late Robert James English, what he had to do to work as a White House spokesman. English, who worked for former House Speaker Jim Wright, introduced him to politics.
"I thought it was a cool job," Veasey said. "I wanted that job."
His grandmother, 99-year-old Ressie Davis English, says Veasey always had a positive spirit and a willingness to fight for the little guy, whether it was a family member, neighbor or hard-luck stranger. She says he wanted to be Marshal Dillon, but with a briefcase instead of a gun.
"He always tries to do the right thing for people," she said. "But I never figured he would go into politics."
From sports to politics
Indeed, it took a while for Veasey to get his start.
After earning his college degree, he made his way to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he compiled stats, wrote short stories and fancied becoming a sportswriter. He also wrote scripts for an advertising agency.
But politics called. He started as a volunteer handing out campaign stickers and by 1998 was a paid staffer, a field specialist.
The experience helped when the time came to challenge Lewis.
Veasey developed an aggressive voter-contact program, much like the one he's running in his congressional race. He relied heavily on phone calls, mailers and door-to-door campaigning.
"We really got after it," he said. "Nobody in the community knew me. I had to start at the bottom and win the election."
It helped that Democrats were sensitive to the fact that some members had stayed behind in Austin rather than break up the House's quorum. Lewis and others have said they wanted to make sure Democratic interests were still represented.
But "if you were a Democrat, everybody wanted to know if their state representative went to Ardmore," Veasey said.
He won going away. The same year, he married Tonya, a young lobbyist. They have one son, 6-year-old Adam.
Opponents have raised questions about his wife's work for a payday-lending company and his campaign donations from the industry, which some say preys on poor people in desperate situations with high-interest loans. Veasey says he has a strong record of trying to regulate the lenders.
Once in the Legislature, Veasey, like other Democrats and eventually many Republicans, struggled constantly with Craddick, who was often criticized as an authoritarian leader.
"He was like a Darth Vader-type figure," Veasey said. "I literally felt like I was suiting up to go fight.
We caused him a lot of fits. That was fun."
But it left him out of much lawmaking and without assignments to powerful committees.
His legislative output has not been prolific, but he counts securing a second health care clinic in his district and his effort to enforce hate crime legislation as accomplishments. And he moved up through the ranks of his party's leadership, serving as minority whip and, currently, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
The new congressional district is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the May 29 primary winner is all but certain to take the seat. Some candidates are offering notes of bipartisanship, while Veasey touts his party credentials.
"I don't think that anyone can argue that my Democratic credentials stand out far and above everyone else's," he said.
He said he tries to build consensus but bristled at the suggestion that he's too nice.
"The one thing I've learned since I've been in politics is how to fight," he said. "I love a good fight."
Redistricting is the perfect opportunity. Supporters say his fight against the Republican redistricting plan on the House Redistricting Committee and later as a plaintiff helped bring about the new district. And the winner is sure to be a star, as just the second minority lawmaker from North Texas.
"Whoever is in this position will be the Democrat that all eyes will be on," Veasey said. "Why would we want to send someone to D.C. that's not a trustworthy and dependable friend?"
At a glance: Marc Veasey
Hometown: Fort Worth
Birthplace: Fort Worth
Occupation: Commercial real estate
Education: Bachelor's degree in mass communications at Texas Wesleyan University, 1995
Political career: Elected to Texas House in 2004 and re-elected three times since. Elected minority whip in 2005 and caucus chairman in 2011.
Career: Substitute teacher, newspaper clerk, script writer for advertising agency, real estate broker.
Campaign contact: 817-446-8222, MarcVeasey.com