Pete Laney

On being a Democrat (but not Speaker).

Evan Smith: Are you leaving the Legislature, or has the Legislature left you?

Pete Laney: Well, everything changes. The Legislature changes with every leadership change. There’s been a lot of change; it’s different now. But there’s always a time to do something else. I decided it was my time.

ES: How do you feel about this particular set of leaders—or this particular leader, by which I mean Speaker Tom Craddick?

PL: Each individual leader has his own style, but the membership lets that style exist. At least 76 of the 150 members dictate who sits in that position. I was very honored—a boy from Hale Center, a town of 2,200 people—to be in the office of Speaker of the House, but it wasn’t because of me; it was because of the other members of the House. I was their second choice. They were their own first choice, but I was their second choice.

ES: So whatever else you can say about the way the House is being run, enough of the members buy into that philosophy.

PL: Or have let it become the norm.

ES: But you’re not one of the members who buy into it.

PL: I didn’t run the House like it’s being run now. My take on running it is that you do it in such a way that the members are able to represent their districts to the best of their ability. Their first obligation is to their districts. They’re not there to represent the Speaker, and they’re not there to represent a political party. Now, you can’t make them represent their districts, and you can’t make them work hard, but you can have a system whereby all 149 have the same equal access to the system. That doesn’t mean all of them will have equal access. Some people are more energetic. Some people get to the Capitol at six in the morning and leave here at ten at night during the session. Some get here five minutes before the session starts and leave the minute the session is over. There’s no way you can control it. The only people who can control it are their constituents, and they get an opportunity to do that every two years.

ES: Contrast your way with the way the House is being run today.

PL: It’s run more from the top down now. But that’s the way the members seem to want it, or tolerate it.

ES: You’ve known Speaker Craddick for a long time.

PL: We went to college together and served in the Legislature together for many years. He and I worked together real well until he decided he wanted to be the Speaker. To his credit, he worked hard for many years to make sure I was unseated. That was his objective from the minute I got elected Speaker [in 1993]. He used all the means he could. That’s the way the process works.

When he became Speaker, he was my Speaker, and I offered to help him in any way I could to make a smooth transition to the office. For whatever the reason, he chose not to accept any of that, which is fine. So our relationship is not as cordial.

ES: It seems difficult for you to talk about this stuff.

PL: It is. It’s real difficult.

ES: It’s personal.

PL: There are some things that have happened that have been very personal. I think so much of the process and the system that I guess it’s hard for me to understand someone who does not.

ES: Forget about Speaker Craddick for the moment. You said the character of the House is different. It’s certainly more partisan and polarized. Is it unrecoverable?

PL: I don’t think anything is unrecoverable. There are cycles to the legislative process. It was very rewarding to me, for instance, when I served as chairman of the National Speaker’s Conference to see how much better our system worked than some of the other states’. It was because we got along—the D’s and the R’s. Once the elections were over with, whether you were a D or an R, you had the right to represent your district.

ES: It was more about bipartisanship.

PL: It was. It was “what’s good for Texas.” I think a lot of people were very comfortable with that.

ES: That phrase reminds me of Bob Bullock.

PL: When Bullock first became lieutenant governor, he decided to be partisan, and it didn’t work. He learned real quick. Ike Harris and some of the other senators explained it to him. In this process, some of the people who will become your best friends or maybe just an ally every once in a while will be those who are 180 degrees from you. You learn a lot from them. You learn how in the world people like that got elected to the Legislature; you go to their districts, and, well, that’s the type of philosophy that gets elected.

ES: How did we get from there to here?

PL: A lot of calculated influences on the process. A good example is the money being spent by a few people in Republican races to defeat incumbent Republicans who are not Republican enough.

ES: You’re referring to James Leininger, the San Antonio doctor in the news of late for his bankrolling of challengers to apostate Republican incumbents.

PL: Leininger has been donating money to my opponents for many, many years.

ES: What did you do to Dr. Leininger to incur his wrath?

PL: I don’t know. I’ve never met the man. It’s probably that I’m a very strong advocate of the public school system.

ES: Whereas Dr. Leininger supports vouchers. There’s a sense out there that Republican members were hog-tied during the last session and told to vote for a voucher bill that might have been against the best interests of their districts.

PL: It’s a pretty good indication that several members who voted against vouchers ended up with primary opponents, and

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