Mr. Clout

David Sibley, Republican, Waco, 49.

The best tributes are the unexpected ones. As Senator David Sibley argued for his bill to halt the costly practice of school districts’ granting property-tax breaks to businesses, a seldom heard-from San Antonio Democrat named Greg Luna joined in the debate. “I’m so glad that a senator of your esteem is taking on this issue,” said Luna. “I wanted to do it for years but didn’t think I had the clout.” In that rare moment of candor for a politician, Luna summed up the stature of Sibley: He is Mr. Clout—the strongest, savviest, most influential member of the Senate.

Undeterred by Governor Bush’s vow to veto his bill allowing lawsuits against HMOs that override doctors’ advice, he presented such an overwhelming case that Bush eventually caved in and let the bill become law. As the chairman of the Senate economic development committee, he held headline-grabbing hearings that exposed unconscionable HMO practices. On the floor he eloquently evoked the memories of patients who had died after being denied coverage for treatment. He fought off a D-day-size counteroffensive launched by HMOs and business interests who protested that the bill would raise the cost of health insurance. The base of support he built in the Legislature and in the citizenry helped make it politically impossible for the governor to carry out his veto threat.

In an era when most lawmakers prefer to tread the path of least resistance, he makes his own way—and induces others to follow. He passed a bill setting up a nonprofit corporation to sell children’s health insurance to the working poor, despite right wing opposition that the idea was part of some nefarious plot. A champion of the successful tort reform movement last session, he wasn’t comfortable with the latest round of proposals and interred most of them in his committee. He wasn’t comfortable with an eleventh-hour compromise on electricity deregulation either, and when Sibley isn’t comfortable, no one can rest easy. The bill ultimately died.

A former basketball player at Baylor, Sibley is one of the Capitol’s most imposing and intriguing personalities. He is an oral surgeon turned lawyer and a former mayor of Waco—a background that may explain why he seems to know something about everything and everything about some things. In the course of a ten-minute conversation, he can quote Shakespeare, Churchill, the Bible, and his dad’s homespun wisdom. Some critics say that he is too strong (“Sibley is acting too senatorial” was an occasional complaint heard this session); a few view his disposition to compromise as a weakness. (He abandoned a session-long fight against affirmative action in state contracting, explaining, “I decided that was not the hill I wanted to die on.”) One might also quibble that he never lent his clout to the fight for property-tax relief. So much is expected of him that anything less than perfection is a disappointment.

Tags: POLITICS

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