A Speaker's Race in the East Wing
Fri January 21, 2011 5:56 pm

On Dec. 28, 2000, the Texas Senate elected one of its own to take Rick Perry's place as lieutenant governor and Bill Ratliff was sworn in immediately. The brief ceremony, I wrote in the Febuary, 2001 issue of Texas Monthly, was the culmination of:

"two years of intense, behind-the-scenes wrangling involving more than half a dozen candidates, as well as a lengthy dispute over the rules that would be used to select the next lieutenant governor. Below the surface of Ratliff's brief but lovely ceremony were frayed nerves and partisan conspiracies, naked ambitions and petty jealousies, whispered phone calls and passionate closed-door meetings, a last-minute lawsuit, and inevitably, the ghost of Perry's predecessor, the late lieutenant governor Bob Bullock.

The decision came down to two Republicans widely recognized as the body's intellectual and moral powerhouses: Ratliff, a civil engineer from Mount Pleasant who earned the Star Wars-inspired nickname Obi-Wan Kenobi for his gentle and wise manner as chairman of the Senate's Education and Finance committees, and David Sibley of Waco, the chairman of the prestigious Economic Development Committee, who embraced a law career after a debilitating injury robbed him of his first vocation, oral surgery. The two men have provided more leadership on the toughest issues facing Texas than any other legislators in the past decade."

Since Kay Bailey Hutchison announced her intention to retire a week ago, the Capitol has been rife with speculation about who might be elected to replace David Dewhurst as lieutenant governor should he be elected to Hutchison's seat. (His Inaugural speech was viewed widely as a campaign announcement preview.) Actually, let me correct that:  intrigue about who would take Dewhurst's place has been swirling since he signaled his interest in Hutchison's seat at the start of the last governor's race. But Hutchison's announcement stepped up speculation and jockeying.

Let's all pause a moment to reflect on whether Hutchison could have timed her announcement any worse that at the beginning of a redistricting legislative session in a massive shortfall year. Simply cannot think of a worse scenario. Despite all his protestations that he is entirely focused on the session, Dewhurst appears to be a man in a campaign mindset.

It seems unlikely to me that Dewhurst would resign as lieutenant governor to ramp up his campaign -- why would he? He'll have plenty of time after the session and he remains  lieutenant governor until he knows if his 2012 Senate bid is successful. That means the Texas Senate won't elect his replacement until after that election.

One factor to consider: because of redistricting, the entire Texas Senate will be up for re-election in 2012. Some believe that an election to replace Dewhurst wouldn't take place until the newly-elected Senate is sworn in in January, 2013. There could be some new members. I'm not sure what would dictate the timing of the election -- Ratliff's election, as I pointed out, took place in December, 2000.

That year, the Senate rewarded Ratliff with the gavel as sort of a lifetime achievement honor:  he was trusted, smart and hard-working. But just like a speaker's race, getting there wasn't easy. There was pressure for Republicans to choose one of their own members in their party caucus (ala the Straus speaker's race) but there were too many members who wanted to throw their hats in the ring. All of the candidates wooed the Democratic caucus.

There was considerable controversy over the voting process:

"The 1984 constitutional amendment was silent on such issues as how candidates would be nominated, whether the vote should be secret or public, and whether a runoff would be necessary. The job fell to Senate parliamentarian Walter Fisher and Democrat Rodney Ellis of Houston, the president pro tempore, to devise a fair election process. Ellis, the Senate wit and an African American, joked that the Senate would select its next leader the way the cardinals in Rome select a pope, signaling a decision with white smoke—but, added Ellis, "If you see black smoke, then you'll know they elected me."

The procedure Ellis devised stipulated that all members of the Senate would be considered candidates unless they requested in writing that their names be removed from the ballot. The candidates getting the lowest number of votes would be dropped from each subsequent ballot. Runoffs would be held if the lowest candidates tied. Finally, Ellis said that the vote would be secret, to the delight of colleagues who feared retribution for failing to support the winner.

Media outlets, including Texas Monthly, sued over the secret ballot, but the courts approved by the process. An interested note: two strong advocates of open balloting were Steve Ogden and Troy Fraser. It will be interesting to see if they favor an open ballot this time if they are candidates for the office.

Both are mentioned as possibilities, but in Ogden's case, that would mean he would have to postpone his retirement yet again. Other obvious candidates are Robert Duncan, Kel Seliger, Tommy Williams, or Kevin Eltife. Seliger, as redistricting chair, has both risk and opportunity to win friends among his colleagues this session.

But of course, the field could change dramatically -- especially if outside groups become involved as they did in the most recent speaker's race. Both political parties will have an interest in electing someone who will commit to running a statewide campaign for re-election.

Would a 2013 lieutenant governor's election remotely resemble the 2000 process? That year, eight separate votes were taken, which then-Secretary of the Senate Betty King counted, alone, in her office. No one demanded to oversee her or check her work. Does anybody at the Capitol get that kind of respect anymore?

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