For thirty years our policy has been that presiding officers are not eligible for the Best or the Worst list except in exceptional circumstances. These are exceptional circumstances. David Dewhurst began with the lowest of expectations and ended with the highest of praise. The former land commissioner’s election as lieutenant governor last November touched off speculation that senators would strip him of the powers of the office. Everyone assumed he would take his cues from the more experienced members of the Capitol triumvirate, Governor Perry and Speaker Craddick. Yes, he had been a successful businessman, but did he have the brainpower and the political savvy—not to mention the personality—to handle the job? Could a starched and somewhat rehearsed ex- CIA agent crack the fraternal code of the Legislature?
Yes indeed. He met with every senator, not to talk but to listen, and flabbergasted them by taking notes. He told lobbyists who had supported his Democratic opponent, John Sharp, that he would not hold it against them. He assembled a superb staff. And he made committee appointments that delivered on his pledge to engage R’s and D’s alike and take the best ideas from each.
Having put himself in a position to govern, Dewhurst then made the defining decision of the session: While Perry and Craddick pledged to erase the mammoth budget deficit through spending cuts, Dewhurst announced that he would instead identify “essential services” and look for ways to fund them without raising taxes. A huge sigh of relief went up all over Texas.
Dewhurst and the Senate kept hitting the bull’s-eye. They cleaned up the House’s tort-reform mess. They avoided the blowup over redistricting that brought the House to a standstill. They even came up with a school-finance bill that slashed property taxes in half, as if to prove Perry wrong for saying that the colossal problem should be put off until a special session. The House ignored that bill, and some would argue that Dewhurst’s anger over the snub revealed a newcomer’s naiveté. No matter. He was the unlikely hero of the session. He put the state’s needs ahead of an ideological agenda. He took the moral high ground and held it. That’s what being a leader is all about.