Bill Passes

How Bill Ratliff became lieutenant governor—and what it means for Texas.

February 2001By Comments

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 said ‘Leticia, you don’t understand. He probably has a file on you,'” she said. To Van de Putte, a mother of six, the implication was comical: “I said, ‘Really, did I have fun? Did I have an affair with someone who really likes cellulite?'”

Sibley, the clear front-runner, had another problem: Some Democrats wanted to pave the way for the election of a Democratic lieutenant governor in 2002, and they believed their party would have an easier time winning the post if their candidate—possibly John Sharp, who lost a close race to Perry in 1998—didn’t have to run against a Republican incumbent. Sibley was a sure bet to run. Ratliff at first said he would not run for reelection, then tempered his position by saying, “I need one session under my belt to decide if this is a career. I may not like this job.”

Democrats also worried about the redistricting that will take place during the current legislative session—the creation of new electoral boundaries that will determine every senator’s future. They feared Sibley would have to position himself for a hotly contested Republican primary, since land commissioner David Dewhurst and comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander have already expressed an interest in the lieutenant governor’s job. Van de Putte explained, “Some Democrats didn’t want someone who would have to prove how good a Republican he is by screwing the Democrats in redistricting.”

At first, the most likely challenger to Sibley was Buster Brown. A genial twenty-year veteran with strong friendships among Democrats, Brown was regarded as nonpartisan and nonthreatening. But his candidacy was fatally wounded by the “golf lesson incident” in 1999, when a young woman on his staff filed a sexual harassment charge against him for groping her while giving her tips on golf. Too many Republicans regarded him as a potential embarrassment to their party.

Despite the considerable anti-Sibley sentiment, he would have won if Bush had locked up his election on November 7. On that date Sibley had enough confirmed commitments that he had planned a press conference for the ninth to announce that he’d captured the lieutenant governor’s office. But in politics, timing is everything. As the uncertainty over Bush’s election wore on, the opposition to Sibley emerged. In the two weeks following Election Day, Democrats caucused twice in an attempt to band together behind one candidate. All the effort served only to evoke Will Rogers’ famous observation: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Eventually, the caucus met in a conference room at Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel for interviews with all of the announced candidates, dubbed the “beauty contest.” Quipped one Senate staffer: “Those guys shaved their legs and everything.”

Sibley’s agenda was not well received by several Democrats, who wanted a caretaker who would preside fairly, not an activist. Later he would acknowledge, “There was a virulent strain of ‘Anybody but Sibley’ in the Democratic caucus.” Meanwhile, Ratliff impressed the caucus with his message that he would not push a personal agenda, arguing that he didn’t have the mandate of the citizens of Texas. Instead, he would try to be a consensus builder among his Senate colleagues. He also scored points by saying that incumbents should be protected in redistricting. After the meeting, the “Anybody but Sibley” faction had gained a viable candidate.

Meanwhile, a fierce debate raged over how the vote would occur. 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.

Republicans Steve Ogden of Bryan and Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay harshly criticized the secrecy provision. Privately, the Sibley forces worried that a non-record vote would benefit Brown, because his supporters would be shielded from having to explain why they voted for someone tainted by sexual harassment. Because Ogden and Fraser openly supported Sibley, the fight over the secret ballot became intertwined with Sibley’s candidacy. When numerous media outlets, including several of Texas’ leading daily newspapers and Texas Monthly, filed a lawsuit to stop the secret ballot, some senators suspected that Sibley (and Proffitt) had arranged the legal challenge. “I felt that the parties to the lawsuit were trying to get him elected,” said Republican Chris Harris of Arlington, who at one time was thought to be in the Sibley camp.

Tension mounted even further that day when two lower courts agreed with the media’s request for an open vote. The decision was immediately appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which issued a unanimous decision reversing the lower courts only moments before the Senate was scheduled to meet. The lawsuit infuriated many senators. The normally mild-mannered Bivins accused the media of questionable motives in seeking an open vote. “They just wanted to see the blood and gore and bruises and wounds suffered by the loser,” he said in disgust. Ellis noted that many of the same newspapers editorialized in favor of a closed vote in the last House Speaker’s race, in 1991. “Talk about hypocrisy,” he fumed.

As Senators gathered to begin voting, Ogden and Fraser pleaded for a delay in the proceedings, so they could convene the Republican caucus to argue for an open vote. No agreement was reached, and the Republicans filed back into the packed chamber to begin the vote. Ogden said after the election that he had pushed for the open vote on principle, not on Sibley’s behalf. But “the undercurrent,” as he called it, was that the open vote benefited Sibley because it forced the hand of senators who had pledged to more than one candidate or who didn’t want to have to justify their vote for Brown. “I can’t change the perceptions in some senators’ minds,” he said. “It’s a possibility my efforts affected the outcome.”

“The group that wanted an open vote—they weren’t calling me up and asking me what to do,” Sibley said after the election. His analysis of his defeat: “It came down to two votes who were squishy and they squished.”

The voting lasted about two hours. The lowest vote-getter on each ballot was eliminated. When the finalists were announced, dark-horse candidate Democrat Judith Zaffirini of Laredo had surprised onlookers by reaching the final four. Sibley and Ratliff were tied with eleven votes each, ahead of Brown with five and Zaffirini with four. This was the decisive moment. When Ratliff picked up two of Zaffirini’s votes on the next ballot, for thirteen, and Sibley only one, for twelve, leaving Brown with six, the outcome of the final ballot was anti-climactic: Three of Brown’s voters were known to be for Ratliff. After the inevitable 16 to 15 tally, Sibley made the motion to name Ratliff by acclamation, which unanimously passed.

“I don’t have any prepared remarks . . . I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” a tearful Ratliff said after the applause in the chamber died down. Sibley, who calls Ratliff his best friend in the Senate, was equally gracious in defeat: “He will have no more loyal soldier than I.”

It was a remarkable afternoon for the Texas Senate, whose votes are generally ceremonial, after the real decisions have been worked out in closed-door meetings. It produced a win-win choice between its two best members. Though the Democrats’ strategy of electing Brown fizzled, they succeeded in defeating Sibley and were rewarded by Ratliff with generous committee assignments, including Ellis as the new chairman of the Finance Committee. In the end, Ratliff’s message of shared power resonated with Democrats. Sibley’s fatal flaw, it turns out, was being too strong—too great a threat as a candidate, too much of a leader, too committed to an agenda.

Ratliff has an unblemished record of fairness and a ferocious work ethic. He keeps his desk clean and requires staff members to do the same. He mentors younger members and doesn’t bow to partisanship. Ethically unimpeachable, he was so scrupulous with the state’s money as Senate Finance chairman that he once rebuffed a request from Bullock for a paltry $20,000 for a pet project Ratliff regarded as a waste of money. He relented only when Sibley intervened and offered to donate the sum from his own campaign funds, just to calm the enraged Bullock.

Sibley was philosophical about how the drama played out. “I believe that happiness is a personal decision,” he said. “I’m going to be happy. God still loves me. My family loves me. I can’t feel bad about Ratliff winning.” This may be his last session, and it could be Ratliff’s as well. Throw in redistricting and the 2002 elections, and the next Senate could look, and perhaps act, vastly different from this one.

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