Intellectual Gladiator—Steve Wolens

Democrat, Dallas, 49. If Steve Wolens were the sort of person who keeps a motivational sign on his desk—which he is not, an encouragement to action being the last thing he needs—it would read, “The difficult we do at once. The impossible takes a little longer.” Indeed, the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee did things this session that were previously thought to be beyond the grasp of mortals. He made the Religious Right compromise on an abortion bill! He produced an electricity-deregulation bill that won the support of consumers, environmentalists, and utilities! He negotiated with the CEOs of two Fortune 500 companies over dinner and picked up the tab! “I keep thinking he can’t get any better,” says Plano Republican Brian McCall, a member of Wolens’ committee, “and then he grows exponentially.”

He has done it the right way too, making an eighteen-year journey from gadfly to role model on nothing but the strength of his intellect—never twisting an arm, never playing a dirty trick, never carrying the lobby’s water. (“This is not a bill that belongs to utilities. It belongs to us,” he told the House at the start of the electricity-deregulation debate. “This is our bill.”) He asks for nothing more than the opportunity to engage in gladiatorial combat, one against one, with the arena full and wits as the only weapon.

Such a contest occurred when Attorney General John Cornyn came to Wolens’ committee to explain the constitutional issues involved in the parental-notification bill, which the Religious Right wanted to pass unchanged. “I’ve been dying to talk to someone about this bill,” said Wolens, who had been frustrated by the pro-life side’s refusal to discuss his lawyerly concerns. When Cornyn, a former state Supreme Court justice, cited a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court case from Montana to support his position, Wolens asked if he was familiar with a 1999 Montana state court case that had reached the opposite conclusion. The duel was on. By the time it ended, Wolens had gotten him to agree that several proposed changes would not adversely affect the constitutionality of the bill. The Religious Right soon came to the bargaining table.

If there has been a complaint about Wolens in the past, it is that he is prone to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, with the consequence that important but imperfect bills sometimes die on his watch. Not this time. The bills on abortion, electricity deregulation, and telephone competition all passed in the closing days. He guided the once-controversial deregulation bill through the House with just four votes against, and the standing ovation from his colleagues that followed its passage—joined by applause that floated down from the packed gallery to the House floor—was confirmation that the perfect was possible after all.

Tags: POLITICS

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