Master of the Playground

Hugo Berlanga, Democrat, Corpus Christi, 48.

Hugo Berlanga said at the start of the session that he was tired. The time had come to do something else. He was burned-out.

Mark it down that this burnout had a long fuse. Hugo—he’s a first-name figure—had a session for the ages. Through behind-the-scenes negotiations and timely amendments, he influenced every major issue and a host of lesser ones. As chairman of the House Public Health Committee, he sponsored bills on tobacco regulation, health insurance for kids, and rural health care. As head of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, he unified a group that didn’t want to be unified.

No one else is so involved in so much or with so many people of such disparate political persuasions. As tensions rose in the House chamber on the night that the abortion bill was to be debated, Hugo suddenly appeared inside a circle of angry pro-life Republicans, trying to persuade Arlene Wohlgemuth and her allies not to take precipitous action in the event the bill proved to have a fatal parliamentary flaw. They should have listened.

Hugo, making his third straight appearance on the Best list, is to the House what IBM’s Deep Blue is to chess: He never stops thinking, never gets discouraged, and sees a billion moves ahead. On the day of the property tax—relief debate, the minority caucuses were in rebellion against the House leadership’s plan, and Hugo was urging them on; summoned by Speaker Laney, he said, “Don’t worry. It will be all right by five o’clock this afternoon”—and it was. If the House is in session, he is always working the floor, moving from one desk to the next, rounding up votes and cutting deals. He had no realistic chance to pass his bill setting requirements for absentee military voting—most soldiers vote Republican, so why should the GOP agree to any restrictions?—but he did. Hugo succeeds because he comes from the All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten school: “How you play on the playground means everything,” he says. “You’ve got to treat people like they want to be treated. If you can find out what someone really wants and what’s superfluous, you can usually find common ground.”

Everybody turns to Hugo in a pinch. He knew nothing about boll weevils, but when the state’s boll weevil program was in the ditch, he pulled it out. Courted by both sides in the battle over letting homeowners borrow against their equity, he dropped his opposition when he was able to add an amendment capping interest rates at 7.5 percent above the cost of money. Other members wear out their welcome by going to the microphone too much, but Hugo never seems to.

About the only place he doesn’t go is his own desk. Late in the session, someone came over to borrow his leather chair. “Go ahead,” said a colleague who sits nearby. “He just comes here to pick up his messages.” Then he added, “We get to buy our chairs when we retire, but I’m going to ask for Hugo’s. It’s still brand-new.”

Tags: POLITICS

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