A farewell to my right arm
Sat March 12, 2011 1:39 pm

Having worked closely with writer-at-large Patricia Kilday Hart through the past ten legislative sessions, with never a cross word passing between us, I had come to assume that, if it was an odd-numbered year, Patti and I would be spending yet another spring working together on the Ten Best & Ten Worst Legislators story.  I have worked on the story with many people since I was first assigned by TEXAS MONTHLY to cover the legislature back in 1975, and I knew Patti to be one of the most talented, professional, and experienced (having worked for the late, lamented Dallas Times Herald in the eighties) writers in Texas who could cover state politics. I knew I was lucky to work with her. Not surprisingly, I was not the only one who knew this. Last week, the Houston Chronicle hired Patti for a job in their Austin bureau. As sad as it is for me to write these lines, she will no longer be posting on BurkaBlog or covering the Capitol for TEXAS MONTHLY.

Let me tell you what it was like to work with Patti. One year a state senator wrote a letter to the editor claiming that Patti had made a mistake in the Best & Worst story. I didn’t believe it, because I never knew her to make a mistake. Sure enough, when Patti checked into the senator’s claim—it was something having to do a hearing involving an abortion bill, as I recall—it turned out to be the senator who had made the mistake, not Patti.

Before this session, Patti joined with Nate Blakeslee and me to write a feature story about who has political power in Texas and how power has changed over the years. The story identified the twenty-five most powerful Texans, as chosen by the three of us and Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein. One of the most difficult decisions was to identify the person with the most influence over health care in Texas. Was it someone at the Texas Medical Association? A lobbyist? Eventually Patti settled on HHS commissioner Thomas Suehs. I was skeptical. A bureaucrat? But when Suehs issued a report saying that Texas could not afford to reject federal funds for Medicaid, I knew she had made the right choice. That kind of determination to get it right, is what makes her a great reporter.

The division of labor between us was that Patti covered the Senate and I covered the House. Although there are only 31 senators, compared to 150 House members, she had the more difficult task. The House conducts its business in the full light of day, the strengths and weaknesses of its members on display for everyone to see. The Senate is different. What you see on the floor is not what you get. By the time legislation reaches the floor, the decisions have already been made, in back rooms and in private conversations. A reporter has to know who has been talking to whom, and what they talked about. Patti always knew what was happening behind the scenes.

The best way to honor a writer is to publish her words. What follows are some of my favorite selections from Patti’s work in previous “Best & Worst” articles:

On Robert Duncan, Ten Best, 2009:

Some lawmakers become hardened after too many years in office; Duncan has become more independent. He broke rank with advocates of tort reform, his old allies, because he believed recent court decisions misinterpreted laws involving the injured and the ill. And he should know: He wrote them. Drawing from a deep well of respect, he persuaded his Senate colleagues to make concessions for workers afflicted with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related illness. The normally invincible tort reform lobby beat a hasty retreat to the House to kill the bill there.

On Teel Bivins, Ten Best, 2003:

He was the point man for the good guys on the most important issue of the session. He spent his days and nights fighting the bad guys, and it almost did him in. With the Legislature facing a $9.9 billion shortfall, it fell to Teel Bivins, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to fend off the ax-wielding House and the cleaver-waving governor’s office and produce a budget that met the state’s needs without raising taxes….The final budget negotiations with the House were excruciating. The level of spending was lower than Bivins wanted, but at least he had a deal. He asked himself, “Was it enough?” Late one night, when all but a few details had been worked out, he sat in his office and wondered if he could have done more for higher education, kids needing health insurance, the disabled, and the elderly. “I didn’t want to let egos get in the way,” he sighed. In a capitol brimming with lawmakers greedy for attention, he never let himself forget that writing a humane budget was a task too important for gamesmanship.

(Who else but Patti would track down the chairman of finance in the final hours of a session and be rewarded with a dramatic scene?)

On Bob Deuell, Ten Best, 2007:

Though tagged as an ideologue when he first arrived in the Senate two sessions ago, Bob Deuell marches to the beat of a different drummer, which is fitting for a former member of Ike and Tina Turner’s band in the seventies. Consider family physician Deuell’s advocacy of a needle-exchange program to combat AIDS and HIV. While other Republicans fretted they’d be accused of coddling junkies, Deuell saw a common-sense solution to soaring deaths and health care costs.

(Ten Best profiles aren’t easy to write. They have to be more than a list of accomplishments. Patti enlivened them by weaving little known biographical details into her profiles, as she did with Deuell.)

On Kirk Watson, Ten Best, 2009:

He’s the Galápagos penguin of the Texas Legislature. That rarest of birds—an effective liberal—Watson has adapted, Darwin-style, to the inhospitable habitat of the Republican-dominated Senate. This session he emerged as the thoughtful leader of the loyal opposition, armed mostly with a pragmatic survival instinct.

(Come to think of it, Watson kind of resembles a penguin, at that.)

David Sibley, Ten Best, 1999

This was not supposed to be one of David Sibley’s better sessions. Long before lawmakers arrived in Austin, rumors flew that he was not a favorite of incoming lieutenant governor Rick Perry’s and might be stripped of his prestigious Economic Development Committee chairmanship….No matter. Such obstacles were mere trifles to a man who lost his successful oral surgery practice because of nerve damage that affected his hand but went on to become a lawyer instead.  As usual, Sibley was the ablest senator on the widest range of important issues: electricity deregulation, telecommunications competition, protection of the rights of religious institutions, tax cuts. A shrewd tactician, a master at legislative mechanics, a scholar of public policy issues, and a mentor to those willing to listen, Sibley proved that the Senate is a meritocracy, where talent and knowledge of the institution are more important than the blessing of the lieutenant governor….

Drew Nixon, Ten Worst, 1999

When Drew Nixon picks up his microphone on the Senate floor, his colleagues pay close attention—but not out of respect. They’re hoping for a little comic relief, and they’re seldom disappointed. During the debate on an important education bill, Nixon observed that the state’s school-finance system was “a rather oddball duck.” Well, it takes one to know one.

(You can’t write a better lead than this. The tempo and the payoff are perfect.)

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work with Patti for so many years. She set a standard for professionalism that every journalist, myself included, should aspire to emulate. I will miss her immensely, though we both will be around and will remain Capitol colleagues and friends. I congratulate the Chronicle for having the wisdom to hire Patti. They will soon come to realize how fortunate they are to have her, if they haven’t already. Thanks, Patti, for everything you did.

# # # #

As for our Ten Best & Ten Worst Legislators story, it will endure and flourish, as it has since 1973. For the remainder of this session, my colleague in researching and writing the article will be senior editor Nate Blakeslee. Nate’s reporting has been making national news since 1999, when he broke the story in the Texas Observer of a drug sting in the Panhandle town of Tulia, which concentrated on members of the town’s minority community. The book that came out of that story, Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, was named a Notable Book by the New York Times and received of numerous accolades, including the prestigious J. Anthony Lukas prize. Nate also broke the TYC story in 2007, and wrote a excellent investigative piece about Tomball state representative Allen Fletcher during the last session. Most recently, he took the lead in organizing our story about who has power in Texas today, which appeared in the February issue, and contributed an insightful piece about the Tea Party to the same package. He’s a pro.

I look forward to working with Nate and our intern, Katherine Stevens, during the next three months, and readers can look forward to the Ten Best & Ten Worst Legislators article in the July issue – if the Legislature finishes its work in 140 days, so that we can finish ours.

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