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Cooper Lake's New Name Stirs Populist Ire of a Texas Town

Ask people in Cooper, Texas, what makes their town unique, and they'll mention that it's the boyhood home of Byron (Bam) Morris, the Pittsburgh Steelers' running back, and site of the world's first and only Chigger Festival.

But above all, the 2,300 people here think of their cotton-farming community as the "Gateway to Cooper Lake," a federal reservoir three miles away. The slogan is even printed on town letterhead. But there's a problem.

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Last month a congressional committee decided to rename the reservoir "Lake Jim Chapman," in tribute to a retiring Democrat who represented Cooper in Congress for 12 years.

It's not uncommon for Congress to name federal projects after outgoing members, but to folks in Cooper it's an example of how careless and arrogant the government in Washington has become.

"We were devastated when it happened," says Richard Huie, the town's mayor. "It just shows you that our congressmen are out of touch with the people. They do all this back-patting up there, but they don't think about the constituents that put them in office."

Around town, there's little disagreement. At the movie rental shop, Glenda Overstreet calls the decision "downright sneaky." Marion Miller, proprietor of Miller's Drugstore, says it has shaken his confidence in the system. "The government asks us to trust them with our tax money," he says. "Then they turn around and pull a trick like this."

According to local lore, the concept of Cooper Lake began in 1938, when residents first sought federal funds to build a reservoir on the South Sulphur River. In the 1950s and '60s, Cooper and Delta County bought 19,000 acres, took it off the tax rolls, and set it aside. After a 20-year environmental injunction was overturned, Congress appropriated $144 million in 1989 and the US Army Corps of Engineers completed the project two years later.

From the outset, everybody called it Cooper Lake. The Corps of Engineers even chiseled the name over the dam itself.

Since then, the lake has provided Cooper with a much-needed boost of tourist revenue, and local merchants have spent thousands on signs, souvenirs, and general sprucing up.

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Not only are residents worried that the name change will weaken the city's ability to lure tourists and attract new industry, Mayor Huie says, but they're disgusted by the fact that Congress would change the name without asking them first.

"We take it real personal," says Rhonda Robinson, a waitress at Mamaw's Cafe who's wiping the lunch counter with a paper towel. "Some of my great-granddaddy's land is up there under that lake. It ain't right for someone in Washington to tell us what to call it."

The anger is so deep that the issue could affect the race for Mr. Chapman's empty seat.

Republican candidate Ed Merritt has promised that if elected, he'll work to reverse the decision. He has the backing of prominent Texas Republicans such as House majority leader Dick Armey and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Although Cooper and Delta County have supported Democrats as long as anyone can remember, many here say this year they'll pull the lever for the GOP.

The flap has put Mr. Chapman in an awkward position. When he heard about the honor, Chapman said he was "overwhelmed" and thanked his colleagues profusely. But when he heard about the town's reaction, the moment turned bittersweet. Chapman has not denounced or repudiated the tribute.

In an interview, he noted that he's caught between his former constituents and his colleagues in Congress, who believe that the reservoir belongs to America's taxpayers. Some of them are a bit peeved, he says, that the people of Cooper think they somehow own a reservoir they didn't pay for.

"I can put on both hats and argue each side indignantly," Chapman says. "I don't want the people in Cooper mad at me, but I don't want Congress mad at Cooper. It's not a comfortable spot to be in."

Everybody here acknowledges that Chapman made an enormous contribution to getting the lake built, but most agree that a long list of others also deserve credit. "He's done a lot of work for us, but being a congressman, some of it was his job," says Don Abernathy, a local Chevrolet dealer who traveled to Washington at his own expense several times to lobby for the lake project.

Yet the name might not disappear after all. According to John Yarbrough, regional director for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, the name will change on court documents and probably on national maps, but the state has final authority over what to call the state parks surrounding the lake and what the road signs say.

Here in Cooper, however, the damage is done. "What really hurts is that we're a small community," says Ann Miller, who runs a framing shop downtown. "We don't have a lot of economic resources because we're a low-income area, and we don't have a lot of political clout. It just makes us feel powerless."

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