Democrat, Dallas, 46. The Texas Senate operates under the clubby rules of a fraternity. As far as outsiders can tell, hierarchy is determined by a member’s influence, or maybe it is the reverse. About all that is really known is who is in and who is out. Before this year, Royce West was out. Now he’s in, not by invitation but by brute force, and for once, everybody saw the initiation rites. West proposed an amendment to a tax-cut bill in an effort to help poor areas in urban counties, only to be rebuked by Senate heavyweight David Sibley for bringing up an issue he had lost in committee. According to Senate tradition, Sibley was right—but West didn’t flinch. “I resent the fact that you’re telling the world I’m undermining the budget process,” he said. “It’s not like you didn’t know this was coming.” He won the vote.
A former prosecutor, West has credibility with the Senate’s Republican leadership because he isn’t a predictable liberal Democrat; he sponsored a bill establishing a database of gang members and voted to require notifying the parents of young girls seeking abortions. West was able to advance minority issues both through traditional means (such as questioning state agency executives about their hiring practices) and with tangible legislative accomplishments. He deftly inserted a provision into the electricity-deregulation bill that prohibited electricity providers from declining to serve poor neighborhoods, and he amended the governor’s social-promotion bill to require that state aid be available to help struggling students catch up to their peers. His landmark achievement was securing funding for a University of North Texas facility in South Dallas.
In one of the most exquisite parliamentary maneuvers of the session, West offered an amendment to a bill banning the sale of baby formula and contact lenses at flea markets. In his low, deep voice, he said, “This little old amendment…mumble…mumble…I move adoption.” Yeah, right. This “little old amendment,” senators soon discovered, would have required background checks for the sale of assault weapons at flea markets and gun shows. He lost the battle when the Republican sponsor of the baby-formula bill removed it from consideration rather than risk losing the vote, but West proved once again he was somebody to be reckoned with, just as he had proved in his confrontation with Sibley. After that earlier episode, West had gone over to Sibley to shake his hand, only to have the veteran turn his back. A snub? No, a show of respect. “Can somebody dust the tire tracks off my back?” Sibley quipped as he glanced over his shoulder. Then he turned around and took West’s hand. Welcome to the club.