“BUILT FOR GIANTS but inhabited by pygmies.” Such was the description of the Capitol invoked in days of yore by a Houston legislator and lobbyist (and later a congressman) named Bob Eckhardt, who all too frequently found himself engaged on the losing side. I thought of that remark on the November afternoon when around two hundred people gathered in the Senate chamber to hear Republican state senator Bill Ratliff, of Mount Pleasant, announce his resignation, effective January 10. A giant is departing, and the Senate he leaves behind looks all too pygmyish.
Anyone who has read this magazine’s biennial compilation of the Best and the Worst Legislators is familiar with Ratliff’s accomplishments. In his fifteen-year career, he made the Best list a record-tying six times (with Dallas legislator Steve Wolens). He did everything a senator could do: passed landmark legislation that brought equity to school finance, accountability to public education, and reasonableness to tort reform; chaired the Senate’s three most important committees (Finance, State Affairs, Education); and served a session as lieutenant governor, elevated by his Senate peers to fill the vacancy left when Rick Perry became governor in 2001 following George W. Bush’s ascension to the presidency. But even this unparalleled list of achievements falls short of explaining why Ratliff was the best senator of his generation. He was the conscience of, and the role model for, the Senate—an exemplar of the idea that the public interest knows neither party nor ideology. So infallible was his character that his colleagues famously referred to him as Obi-Wan Kenobi, after the Star Wars Jedi knight who was a fair, wise, and just guardian of the galaxy.
And yet there is more to say about the resignation of Bill Ratliff than valedictories. He did not want to leave the Senate. Rather, the Senate left him. In the fractious climate brought on by redistricting, it no longer wanted a conscience, or his kind of role model, or even to listen to what he had to say. Rumors began to fly as early as last summer that Ratliff would not serve out