Ruthless People

In the new Texas politics, civility is a casualty. But do the ends justify the meanness?

December 2003By Comments

“MAYBE THEY MEANT EVERY 140 years for 2 days.” Toward the end of a particularly dismal legislative session in the mid-eighties, that slogan appeared in the Capitol on yellow-and-red lapel buttons—a play on the state constitutional requirement that lawmakers assemble every two years for 140 days. Where are those buttons when you really need them? After a brutal regular session of cutting essential services and three special sessions of toadying to U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay on congressional redistricting, the best that can be said of the first legislature of the Republican era is that it has gone home.

This dark view of the sea change that has rolled over Texas politics is widely held among the political crowd but by no means universal. The split is not, as you might think, by party—R’s celebrating their ascension to power and D’s mourning their loss of it—but rather by attitudes about politics. One view is that of the extreme elements of both parties, who regard the public interest as inseparable from their faction’s agenda and the opposition as (with apologies to Ronald Reagan and CBS) the Antichrist. The other view, to which I subscribe, holds that the public interest is an elusive holy grail untainted by partisan agendas, and while we don’t know exactly where to find it, we confine our searching to the middle of the political spectrum, in a region called Compromise.

Another factor that separates the two groups is years of service; many of us who have been around for a long time (legislators, lobbyists, and reporters) are troubled by the dominance of the extremists of each party and by the meanness polarization produces. These insurgents, new to the Capitol or new to power, tend to regard us veterans as old codgers pining away for a bipartisan tradition that already seems as remote as the Defenestration of Prague. “Transitions are always painful,” they say. Or, less kindly, “You don’t get it.” Well, they’re right. I don’t get it, I don’t want to get it, and I’m not going to get it—if “it” means the way these Republicans have chosen to govern.

Substance is not the issue here. The GOP had a productive legislative session. They overcame a $9.9 billion budget deficit without raising taxes. They passed a sweeping tort-reform bill. They wrestled with the issue of runaway health care spending and undertook a mammoth road-building program. I think the budget cuts ran too deep, the new revenue fell too short, tort reform went too far, and the highway program is too grandiose and too costly, but I recognize that politics is not a perfect science. No, the problem isn’t substance: It’s process. The Republicans snubbed the Democrats, rubbed their noses in the dirt, and engaged in payback every chance they got, and when they finished with the Democrats, they began to devour each other. Bipartisanship was only one casualty of the session; even worse was the premeditated murder of civility.

The Republican line is that the Democrats were just as mean and uncivil. It is true that the D’s did not go gently into the good night of minority status. In the House, they tried to stall the passage of the budget and tort reform by offering hundreds of amendments, many only slightly different in wording from those preceding. In the Senate, they called their Republican colleagues racists for advancing redistricting plans that sought to maximize GOP seats, and in both chambers, they fled to out-of-state havens in futile efforts to block redistricting. But the primary responsibility has to rest with the Republicans, for one irrefutable reason: They’re in charge, and the leadership sets the tone. It is within their power to reach out to the other side, to set a tone of civility and unity, just as George W. Bush did.

Instead, the norm is more likely to be gratuitous insults. Near the end of the third and final special session, John Mabry, a freshman Democrat from Waco, went to the front microphone in the House to offer a series of resolutions. These are inoffensive proclamations lawmakers pass to honor their constituents: congratulations for good deeds (among Mabry’s honorees were five new Eagle Scouts) and condolences for families who had lost loved ones. After Mabry had passed a few resolutions, two leading House Republicans—Joe Nixon, of Houston, the sponsor of the tort-reform bill in the regular session, and Beverly Woolley, also of Houston, the chair of the agenda-setting calendars committee—took up positions near him and, as a veteran Republican who observed the incident told me, folded their arms, glared at him, sighed, rolled their eyes, and heckled him in low tones, chiding him for wasting time and money. This loutish conduct was followed by worse. Jodie Laubenberg, a Republican freshman from Parker, introduced a woman standing beside her on the podium as the “Optometrist of the Day,” someone who had a “clear vision for Texas.” This, it turned out, is the optometrist’s campaign slogan—as a Republican candidate against Mabry in the 2004 election. The proceedings of the House were used to advance her campaign. What’s wrong with this, in case it needs to be pointed out, is that it destroys any pretense of collegiality. It means that there is no demilitarized zone, nothing that is off-limits to partisan politics.

Had a different tone been set by Speaker Tom Craddick, no one would have dared to attempt this sort of conduct—as, indeed, no one would have dared to try it during the speakership of Pete Laney, Craddick’s predecessor. But Craddick himself is notorious for his in-your-face methods toward Democrats. Scott Hochberg, of Houston, is the most knowledgeable and experienced member of the House on school-finance issues. School finance, of course, is the one remaining task on the agenda of the Seventy-eighth Legislature, to be dealt with in a future special session. It is an enormously difficult subject, one that needs all the expertise that can be brought to bear. Every tweaking of the current system is fraught with possible unintended consequences. Craddick has appointed 31 members of the House to a committee studying school finance, more than 20 percent of the body—and none of them is named Scott Hochberg.

The situation in the Senate was different, but the fate of civility was the same. The issue for Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst was how to deal with the eleven Democrats who defected to Albuquerque in an effort to defeat redistricting. When persuasion failed, Dewhurst had two choices: wait them out or punish them. He had spent the regular session building bipartisan trust, but now he was under pressure from prominent Republicans around the state. This was the time when the kind of leader Dewhurst had been during the regular session might have stepped forward and said, “This is not the way we do things in the Senate. We believe in consensus, not strong-armed tactics.” Instead, overcautious about his political future, he caved in; punishment it would be. With Dewhurst’s blessing, the Republican caucus fined the Democrats (up to $57,000 a piece) and suspended privileges such as parking. Eventually, and inevitably, one of the Democrats broke ranks and came home, and the rest followed. By that time, however, both sides had been radicalized.

The imposition of penalties was legal, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. There is always a price to be paid for the mean-spirited exercise of authority, and for Dewhurst the price was an erosion of his own power. The Republican caucus split into moderates and hard-liners, and for the first time, the hard-liners have the upper hand. Through them, Dewhurst will be under far greater pressure from GOP extremists than when the moderates were in control. The redistricting battle cost Dewhurst his reputation and his political independence, which he had earned in repeated battles with Craddick. That is a hard Humpty Dumpty for Dewhurst to put back together again. At least he wants to try.

The meanness doesn’t stop at the party line. Craddick and Dewhurst despise each other; the Speaker’s no-compromise negotiating style has been likened by the lieutenant governor to “Iranian cab driver” tactics. Their feud is matched by the unconcealed hostility between Rick Perry and Carole Keeton Strayhorn. The comptroller was critical of the state budget and hints none too subtly of a GOP primary race against Perry in 2006. The governor retaliated in the third special session by backing a maneuver to strip Strayhorn’s office of two important programs. For public rudeness, though, it’s hard to top Craddick’s rebuke of one of his most loyal lieutenants, Arlene Wohlgemuth, of Burleson. When she proposed a redistricting compromise to Senate negotiators, Craddick chose to flog her in a press release: “Representative Wohlgemuth is not a member of the House Redistricting Committee, has not participated to date in the House-Senate negotiations on redistricting, and did not speak to me or for me—or the House—in drawing her map.” Independence will not be tolerated.

And so the Texas political tradition of the Bush years—of bipartisan consensus and goodwill—has been obliterated by Craddick in the House and Dewhurst in the Senate, with an assist from Perry. Just when we thought we were safe from more indignities, with the Legislature dispersed, along came the news that some prominent Craddick constituents in Midland were pushing an audacious scheme that would allow them to lease, without competitive bidding, the exclusive right to pump water from more than 600,000 acres of state-owned land in West Texas, which they could then resell. Land commissioner Jerry Patterson gives every indication of being willing to go along with this sweetheart deal and no indication of looking out for the public interest. No one wants to cross Craddick these days, not with his close ties to every prominent Republican, Dewhurst excepted.

As I said before: If this is the way the post-Bush Republicans intend to govern, I don’t get it, I don’t want to get it, and I’m not going to get it. Two days every 140 years sounds pretty good to me.

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