A Giant Void

It’s a sad day when Bill Ratliff, the best legislator of his time, decides there’s no place for him in the poisonous partisan world of Texas politics.

January 2004By Comments

“BUILT FOR GIANTS but inhabited by pygmies.” Such was the description of the Capitol invoked in days of yore by a Houston legislator and lobbyist (and later a congressman) named Bob Eckhardt, who all too frequently found himself engaged on the losing side. I thought of that remark on the November afternoon when around two hundred people gathered in the Senate chamber to hear Republican state senator Bill Ratliff, of Mount Pleasant, announce his resignation, effective January 10. A giant is departing, and the Senate he leaves behind looks all too pygmyish.

Anyone who has read this magazine’s biennial compilation of the Best and the Worst Legislators is familiar with Ratliff’s accomplishments. In his fifteen-year career, he made the Best list a record-tying six times (with Dallas legislator Steve Wolens). He did everything a senator could do: passed landmark legislation that brought equity to school finance, accountability to public education, and reasonableness to tort reform; chaired the Senate’s three most important committees (Finance, State Affairs, Education); and served a session as lieutenant governor, elevated by his Senate peers to fill the vacancy left when Rick Perry became governor in 2001 following George W. Bush’s ascension to the presidency. But even this unparalleled list of achievements falls short of explaining why Ratliff was the best senator of his generation. He was the conscience of, and the role model for, the Senate—an exemplar of the idea that the public interest knows neither party nor ideology. So infallible was his character that his colleagues famously referred to him as Obi-Wan Kenobi, after the Star Wars Jedi knight who was a fair, wise, and just guardian of the galaxy.

And yet there is more to say about the resignation of Bill Ratliff than valedictories. He did not want to leave the Senate. Rather, the Senate left him. In the fractious climate brought on by redistricting, it no longer wanted a conscience, or his kind of role model, or even to listen to what he had to say. Rumors began to fly as early as last summer that Ratliff would not serve out his term, and they had the ring of truth. He knew his time had come. It was no coincidence that he began his resignation speech with a reference to Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” If there was many a wet eye in the audience, the tears were as much for the passing of bipartisanship and goodwill in Texas politics as for the man who’d practiced them.

The erosion of Ratliff’s influence began with the end of the 2001 legislative session. He would serve as lieutenant governor until January 2003, but he had to decide whether to seek election to a full four-year term. He wanted to run, but the powers that be in the Republican party, including Governor Perry, didn’t want him on the ticket. They worried that he couldn’t beat Democrat John Sharp and that he was too independent to do their bidding. They may have been wrong about Sharp, but they were certainly right about his independence: Ratliff liked to describe himself as “51 percent Republican,” and they wanted 100 percent. Rather than make the kind of promises that are necessary to win Republican primaries and statewide elections, he decided against the race.

Instead of ending his career on a high note, however, Ratliff opted to run for reelection to his Senate seat in 2002, which he did not have to give up upon becoming lieutenant governor. In retrospect, this was a mistake—not for Texas, not for the Senate, but for himself. You can’t go backward and end up where you once were. The Senate he returned to was different from the one he had presided over: more Republican, more partisan, less experienced, less able. David Dewhurst, the new lieutenant governor, named Ratliff chairman of State Affairs, giving him jurisdiction over tort reform, a highly divisive issue, and for a time it was like the old days: Ratliff in effect wrote the legislation by himself, producing a bill that was widely praised, in contrast to the House version. But when he tried to raise the House’s grinchy $250,000 ceiling on noneconomic damages for patients suing for medical malpractice—the most controversial facet of the bill—the compromise he had forged with the doctors was sabotaged by the governor’s office and other health care lobbyists. He was able to lift the ceiling a little, but in the end he was not able to achieve the fairness he had sought.

Still, Ratliff’s reputation emerged from the regular session largely intact. He had proven once again that he could handle complex legislation better than anyone at the Capitol. His relationship with Dewhurst, tenuous at first, had improved to the point that on the last day of the session, Ratliff offered a toast at Dewhurst’s lunch for the committee chairs, praising the lieutenant governor for his handling of the Senate. But the good feeling was not destined to survive the summer.

The break came over congressional redistricting, the most poisonous and partisan of issues. Dewhurst originally wanted to avoid it altogether, knowing that it could blow up the Senate (which it did), but once Perry called the Legislature into special session, he felt that he had no choice but to pass it; in his view, his own political future was on the line. And to pass the bill, he needed every Republican vote, including Ratliff’s, to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to suspend the Senate rules so that the new redistricting plan could be brought up for a vote. Dewhurst feels that Ratliff made a commitment and betrayed him, and Ratliff is certain that he did neither. By now, their misunderstanding is familiar ground to anyone who follows Texas politics. Ratliff joined ten Democrats in vowing to block the redistricting bill from coming to the floor. But Dewhurst held the trump card; he maneuvered around the two-thirds rule, outlasted a Democratic exodus to New Mexico, and eventually passed the bill. It remains to be seen whether his victory was worth the price in hard feelings and the damage to his own reputation for fairness.

It is clear now that the confrontation between Dewhurst and Ratliff was a titanic clash between the former lieutenant governor and the present one, not just over redistricting but over how the Senate should operate—and who would decide. Its role in the legislative process has been to temper the majoritarian passions and excesses of the House with the two-thirds rule, which ensures that the minority’s concerns will be addressed. Ratliff’s challenge was about preserving the Senate as a body that works by consensus, not partisanship. Dewhurst was willing to change the rules for redistricting; Ratliff was not. As he had done so many times before, he tried to save the Senate from a meltdown, but this time the Senate did not want to be saved. His influence in the Republican caucus plummeted as soon as he sided with the Democrats. As the battle over redistricting reached its climax, he argued against imposing sanctions on the absent Democrats, but, he told me, “It was like speaking into a hollow tube.”

The immediate effect of Ratliff’s departure is that his expertise will be absent during the all-important issue of school finance, which is scheduled to be addressed in a special session this spring. His training as an engineer allowed him to understand how the individual provisions of legislation fit into the whole; he knew what kept the structure standing and what could make it fall. Nowhere is this understanding more essential than in school finance, where a tweak of a formula can bring chaos to school district budgeting and upset equity between rich and poor districts. A couple of days after Ratliff’s announcement, one of his former staffers sent me an e-mail recalling how Ratliff had rewritten the entire body of law for public education: “I had the great privilege of working [with him] on both education and tort reform. He is the finest public servant I have ever known. Fair, ethical, logical, hardworking. For example: In 1993 I gave him the Education Code on computer disk. A few months later, he plopped a foot-high stack of paper”—the code, rewritten—”on my desk. ‘I’ve been doing some work,’ he said, in his typical, understated way.” Eventually, Ratliff’s draft would become the foundation for the new education code, which is still in force.

Above all, Ratliff will be missed as a role model. It is not only the two-thirds rule that distinguishes the Senate from the House; it is the capacity of the Senate to produce leaders who rise above the gritty side of politics—raising money, running for reelection, settling scores, currying favor, feathering nests, ingratiating oneself with the rich and powerful; in other words, acting like House members on the make—to ask themselves the question “Why am I here?” and then come up with an answer that is something other than “For me” or “For my party.” The list of senators who have achieved this status over the years is short and largely unknown outside the Capitol—Aikin, Gonzalez, Schwartz, Jordan, Sherman, Farabee, Caperton, Montford, Sibley, Ratliff. For the first time that I can remember, there is no one to take up the mantle. The Democrats are too small in number to produce such a leader, and the Republicans are too beholden to the financial and ideological base of their party. It is significant that my e-mail correspondent, a Republican, failed to include “independence,” Ratliff’s most outstanding quality, among his virtues. New to power, Republicans outside the Capitol want to dictate to those inside, and those inside, from Rick Perry to lowly freshmen, seem all too eager to be dictated to.

The Senate membership is not short of talent. It is short of independence, short of vision, short of principled leadership, short of role models, and, without Bill Ratliff, bereft of giants. We know what that leaves.

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