At 5:20 p.m. on December 28, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips stepped briskly to the podium in the Texas Senate and held out Sam Houston’s tattered Bible to await Bill Ratliff’s hand. Just moments before, Ratliff’s fellow senators had elected him to fill the office of lieutenant governor, left vacant by Rick Perry’s ascension to the governorship, and now, as Phillips recited the oath of office, Ratliff’s wife, Sally, stood beaming beside him. The ceremony was picture-perfect, except for the tiniest detail: Somebody had forgotten to turn on the microphone. Senator Rodney Ellis, crouching below the cameras, crept to the podium to switch it on, midway through Ratliff’s oath.
The mute microphone symbolized the out-of-earshot process that lay behind the ostensibly smooth transfer of power: 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. In 1995 Ratliff sponsored newly elected governor George W. Bush’s education reform bill and went on to write much of the state budget in the following years; Sibley has engineered the passage of bills dealing with electric utility restructuring, telecommunications deregulation, tort reform, and patients’ rights. It was only fitting that the winner prevailed by a single vote, 16-15.
Like so much of Election 2000, there were many twists and turns before a final result was reached. When Bush made public his plans to pursue the presidency two years ago, senators immediately began computing the political consequences: If Bush won, Perry would become governor, and the senators would choose his successor. That meant that all 31 senators instantly became, in their own mind at least, candidates to replace Perry, and the Senate entered uncharted territory. Before 1984, the Texas Constitution called for the Senate president pro tempore—a ceremonial position that rotates to the most senior member who has not previously held it—to become lieutenant governor in the event of a vacancy. But in 1983, Senator Grant Jones noticed that a colleague of legendary ineffectiveness was in line to be named president pro tempore and could wind up as lieutenant governor. He sponsored the constitutional amendment that established the current procedure, and the voters approved it.
What looked good to senators in 1984 did not seem so appealing in 2000. The new process conjured up images of a dreaded “Speaker’s race,” the notoriously bitter and supersecret method used to select the leader of the Texas House. Candidates and their lieutenants, often aided by influential lobbyists, solicit, beg, and apply pressure to colleagues to sign pledge cards promising their votes. Rumors sweep through the Capitol about who has been seen on the town with whom and how many votes each candidate actually has. The winner lavishes plum committee assignments on his loyalists, while members who bet on the loser become outcasts.
Early on, Senate Republicans assumed someone from their ranks would get the job. After all, Republicans hold 16 of the 31 seats in the Senate. Some GOP senators, fearing that Democrats might be able to elect one of their own or at least dictate which Republican would win, urged the Republican caucus to unite behind whoever had the most GOP support. But as the number of Republicans seeking the post swelled to five, agreement became impossible. The Democrats had an opening to elect one of their own or throw their support to a Republican, but they couldn’t agree either.
Long before Election Day 2000, six senators publicly acknowledged they wanted the job: Republicans Sibley, Ratliff, Teel Bivins of Amarillo, Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, and Buster Brown of Lake Jackson, and Democrat Kenneth Armbrister of Victoria. Hoping to avoid a rancorous contest, Ratliff and Bivins sent letters to their colleagues announcing that they would not campaign for the post. Ratliff felt the members knew him well enough from his ten-year tenure in the Senate; nothing he could say in a “campaign” could change any minds. Sibley approached the race differently. He felt he should ask members for their votes. He even had an agenda focusing on improving health conditions in border areas, cleaning up air and water, and upgrading higher education and highways. “I don’t know why you want this spot if you don’t have an agenda,” he said shortly before the election. “God put you here for a reason.” He met individually with 29 senators in less than two weeks in August 1999.
In a decision that may have cost him the race, he also hired a political consultant to advise him on his campaign—Tony Proffitt, who for years served as a consigliere to Bullock. Sibley’s hiring of Proffitt proved controversial, since Bullock delighted in collecting (and using) personal information about everyone around the Capitol, including senators, and many regarded Proffitt as one of the purveyors of intimate details of their personal lives. One Democrat told Sibley he would not vote for him as long as Proffitt served on his staff. Sibley didn’t budge: “I decide who’s on my payroll.”
Democrat Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, recently elected to fill a vacant seat, said other senators warned her about Proffitt’s influence on Sibley, whom she supported. “They