Some Senate Republicans, Fraser foremost among them, have been cooking up a plan to exclude the Democrats from choosing the successor to Dewhurst if and when Hutchison resigns her Senate seat. The idea is to impose a unit rule – a term not heard in Texas politics since the days when Democrats ran the state and the delegation to the Democratic national convention was obligated to vote for a predetermined candidate – on the Republican caucus. Under a unit rule, the entire caucus would be obligated to support the caucus’s choice for lieutenant governor. Fraser has been one of the primary advocates of this course of action. Conservatives are concerned that the moderate, or, if you prefer, independent element in the caucus could align with the Democrats to elect a Democrat lieutenant governor. Those with independents tendencies are Averitt, Carona, Eltife, Harris, Seliger, Wentworth, possibly Duncan, depending on how things break. Carona has indicated his interest in the position to his colleagues, and conservative hopefuls include Williams, Nelson, Fraser, and, possibly Ogden, who has been mulling retirement but might stay in the game if he could be light guv.
The last time a vacancy occurred in the light guv’s office was in 2000, when Bush left to become president and Perry moved up to become governor. That shuffling of the deck precipitated an election that came down to Bill Ratliff and David Sibley, with Ratliff winning by a single vote. But Ratliff lacked the conservative credentials to win a statewide race and took himself out of the race, leaving a clear field for Dewhurst, who was land commissioner at the time, to win the office.
In a way, this is much ado about not very much, because the senator chosen to succeed Dewhurst will face the likelihood that attorney general Abbott will file for light gov in January 2010. Abbott has the firepower and the connections with the GOP base to defeat any senator who wins the nod from his peers. Carona told me in an interview that he regards the race to succeed Dewhurst as limited to the interim.
But that is not how Troy Fraser sees it. Fraser was elected president pro tempore by his colleagues. President pro tem is an honorary office that traditionally has been assumed by the senator with the most seniority who has not previously held the position. The president pro tem holds the office until the next session, regular or special, when the Senate elevates the next senator in line. The only time that this did not occur, to the best of my knowledge, was back in the sixties, when Babe Schwartz, then a gadfly known for lecturing his more conservative colleagues about their insufficiencies, was passed over by his colleagues.
Fraser apparently believes that because he is president pro tem, he can assume the office of light gov in the event Dewhurst resigns. The talk among senators is that he has told colleagues that he is moving into Dewhurst’s office as soon as the Dew leaves, and that he already has his staff picked. Article 3, Section 9 of the constitution reads:
The Senate shall, at the beginning and close of each session, and at such other times as may be necessary, elect one of its members President pro tempore, who shall perofmr the duties of the Lieutenant Governor in any case of absence or disability of that officer, and whenever the said office of Lieutenant Governor shall become vacant. I’m sure that it did not occur to his colleagues, when they elected Fraser, that they were choosing the next lieutenant governor, but the constitution seems pretty explicit. If Fraser were to carry out his plan – and who is to stop him? – he would serve until the next session, which would be January 2011, unless the governor were to call a special session in the meantime. And if the governor were to call a special session, would the Senate remove Fraser by electing a new president pro tem?
This is all pretty fascinating stuff. If Fraser is able to put his plan into effect, he would have control of interim charges and of the preliminary preparations for redistricting. Of course, the elephant in the room is that Fraser is not a particularly talented lawmaker, and that he is a highly partisan Republican. He is also buddy buddy with Perry, and if Perry is reelected, Fraser would be even more of a governor’s lapdog than Dewhurst has been. Undoubtedly Perry would do whatever he could to bring Fraser’s strategy to fruition, and it appears that the Republican enforcer groups are already trying to bring pressure to bear on requiring GOP caucus members to follow a unit rule.
Carona has been urging colleagues not to commit early to anyone. He has the oldfashioned idea that the Senate works best when it works in a bipartisan way, but that notion is at best endangered if not extinct after Tommy Williams established the precedent that Republicans can crush any resistance by the Democrats by using special orders to get around the two-thirds rule. We are going to see some very ugly politics as Republicans try to hold onto their power.