Republican, Coppell, 48. He didn’t sponsor any of the session’s most important bills, seldom engaged in floor debate, and didn’t chair a committee, yet Ken Marchant did something far more important. As the chairman of the Republican caucus in a House where Democrats held a narrow majority and partisan warfare was capable of erupting at any moment, he kept the peace. His role was that of the genial, kindly sheriff in a western who allows the cowboys to gamble, drink, and fight—but when they show up at the jail, rope in hand, he stands on the steps and says, “Boys, just go on home and cool off.”
Take away Marchant as caucus chairman and the session easily could have had an entirely different outcome. Before he decided to seek the job, the front-runner was Arlene Wohlgemuth of Burleson, the gold standard for ultrapartisanship, ultraconservatism, and ultracontentiousness (see the Ten Worst list, page 101). Democrats would have responded in kind, and the loser would have been George W. Bush, whose legislative program could not have survived in such a tinderbox atmosphere. Marchant is no softy; he is a strong partisan and a deeply religious social conservative who graduated from Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma. But he understood that the most important thing for House Republicans this year was to provide the governor with a record that he could take to New Hampshire. He halted the previous caucus practices of issuing alerts against Democratic bills that offended Republican sensibilities, threatening reprisals against members who didn’t toe the party line, and forcing votes on wedge issues that could help his party defeat Democratic incumbents in the next election. Then he tried to change the GOP’s mind-set from one of opposing to one of governing, in which the priorities were passing Bush’s legislation and making sure that divisive issues such as abortion and hate crimes didn’t poison the atmosphere.
It was not an easy job, and it did not go smoothly. The caucus was bitterly divided; its firebrands regarded Marchant as a weak leader and sniped at him whenever they could. Meanwhile, Marchant was one of several Republican committee chairs to be defrocked by Speaker Pete Laney, losing his chairmanship of the Financial Institutions Committee. He had every excuse to blow up; instead, he kept everyone else from doing so. In politics, what doesn’t happen can be just as significant as what does happen.