How Rodney Ellis runs Texas—sometimes.
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Who was the state’s last Democratic governor? If you think it was Ann Richards, think again. The correct answer is right there in your copy of the Texas constitution. Whenever the governor is out of state, it says in Article IV, Section 16, the lieutenant governor assumes the duties and powers of his office. Whenever the lieutenant governor is out of state, notes Article III, Section 9, the president pro tempore of the Texas Senate assumes the duties and powers of his office. So, in the event that both the guv and the lite guv (colloquially speaking) are out of state, the president pro tem is the one in charge—and, lately, that hasn’t been just a hypothetical situation. With George W. Bush campaigning for president all over the country and Rick Perry called away on his share of official and political business (and known to take the occasional vacation with his family), the reins of power have been handed more than a few times to the man who occupies the number three slot in the line of succession.
That man would be Rodney Ellis. On 9 full days and 22 partial days since his Senate colleagues elected him president pro tem at the end of the 1999 legislative session, the 46-year-old, five-term Houston Democrat has been the acting governor of Texas—longer than any president pro tem in modern history. The title may sound ceremonial, on the order of Mayor for a Day, but nothing about the job is. “It’s a serious responsibility,” Ellis says. Indeed, the acting governor tackles all the tasks, somber and otherwise, of the guy normally in charge. If there’s an execution scheduled, the acting governor reviews the case files and consults with the governor’s legal counsel in the event that new evidence comes to light. If there’s a natural disaster, the acting governor is the one who deploys the National Guard. During, say, wildfire season, the acting governor receives daily updates on climatic conditions as well as briefings on hypothetical crises, from train derailments to pipeline explosions. For the privilege of presiding over the second-largest state in the nation, the acting governor gets a fifteen-fold raise, from the lowly Senate salary of about $20 a day to a whopping $316.01. And, of course, there’s the ego boost. “The first day that you’re acting governor, you walk around the house all big until your wife tells you to pick up your stuff,” says Senator Ken Armbrister of Victoria, who was the president pro tem between the 1995 and 1997 legislative sessions. “That brings you down to reality.”
Armbrister, at least, got to do something consequential on the eight full and four partial days he was acting guv, putting the National Guard on alert when a hurricane was threatening the Beaumont area and dispatching Blackhawk helicopters to assist firemen fighting grass fires around Greenville. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s Senator Teel Bivins of Amarillo, the president pro tem during the 1999 session, who served as acting guv for a total of thirty seconds when Perry briefly walked across an international bridge. “I don’t think he had time to make an order at a Dairy Queen,” says his press secretary, Cathy Teague. Ellis’ experience falls somewhere in the middle. Other than a few executions that went forward without incident, not much has happened while he’s been on the job. The Fort Worth tornado hit on March 28, a day he was supposed to be acting guv—in fact, the Texas Department of Public Safety tracked him down jogging at Rice University—but news of the disaster caused Perry to delay his out-of-state plans. That’s fine with Ellis, who thinks less is more when it comes to subbing for elected officials. “I’m not going to do anything that would take away from the dignity of the office,” he says, adding that if he ever had to make a big decision, he’d consult with Bush and Perry: “In this age of easy communication, they’re only a phone call or an e-mail away.”
Of course, there are those who would like to see Ellis be an activist acting guv. His staff, for instance: With Bush and Perry both slated to be in Philadelphia for a week this summer at the GOP Convention, a few self-starting aides have concocted a so-called 4-H agenda (health, homelessness, hunger, and high-tech) for their boss to push. Ellis will have none of it. “A strange thing happens between sessions,” he says. “Staff members who are extremely bright get bored, and you have to reel them in. I’ve been known from time to time to be around trouble, but I never cause it.”
But would he want to be an activist guv? Having had a taste of power, would Ellis like to trade “acting” for “actual” and run for the top job? “Not at all,” he insists. “I hope to fall over dead on the floor of the Senate.”