Like the Good Samaritan who assisted the injured stranger, Robert Duncan couldn’t resist the call of friendless but worthy causes. If there was a difficult job that absolutely had to be performed, senators could always count on him to do the right thing (or, as he says in his West Texas twang, the “raht thang”). Just as in the parable, he made sure that dying bills were restored to health.
Nothing had a more dire prognosis this session than the health insurance program for retired teachers, which has been sliding toward bankruptcy for a decade. When Senate Finance Committee chairman Teel Bivins saw the gravity of the situation, he turned the complex and politically treacherous problem over to Duncan with simple instructions: Fix it. And fix it Duncan did, though the only viable prescription for solvency—raising premiums on teachers and forcing school districts to chip in—would not be popular. During Senate debate on the issue, he told his colleagues, “It’s pay now or lose later. Although it hurts today, I will tell you we will pay the price. We have put our head in the sand too many years.” They swallowed the medicine.
Duncan performed many more good deeds out of the limelight, knowing he would receive no public acclaim. He doggedly pursued a better system for selecting judges (it died in the House), tweaked procedural rules to make mental-competency hearings fairer for criminal defendants, and served on tort-reform sponsor Bill Ratliff’s kitchen cabinet. He backed away from his initial support of a controversial proposal by builders to resolve disputes with homebuyers without lawsuits, sending lobbyists into a tizzy, then fashioned a compromise that protected buyers from shoddy workmanship.
If there is a rap against Duncan, it’s that he’s a great ally but not yet a leader on big issues. He started his career as general counsel to a committee chaired by his predecessor, John Montford, and his low-key manner and self-effacing style are more suited to advising Senate bulls than being one. Still, he does have a threshold of outrage, as a House member discovered during a work session on the budget after suggesting that the health benefits of children of undocumented immigrants be cut off. “These are children we’re talking about!” Duncan exploded, ever the Good Samaritan.