WHEN HE LEARNED last year about a hazardous waste company’s plan to expand its nuclear dump in West Texas, Duncan forced a state agency to delay its okay of the project. Risking political fallout from the company’s influential investors, he championed legislation requiring hefty state fees and closer government scrutiny, only to see it killed at the last minute—and this was only the first of his brushes with radioactivity this session. From helping hammer out a compromise on asbestos litigation to negotiating the final education budget and revamping the ailing Teacher Retirement System, Duncan immersed himself in issues whose common traits were complexity, volatility, and their potentially lethal impact on his political career.
He’s the rare senator who masters both the big ideas and the details. When Senate debate gets mired in controversy over the language in a bill, keep your eye on the huddle that forms around him, a sure sign that other senators are looking to him for a technical fix that will resolve the problem. Says an admiring colleague: “He’s the best lawyer in the Senate.”
Notwithstanding his skills, he tends to frustrate other members and lobbyists who want a quick, final agreement. Mild-mannered and methodical, he sometimes makes decisions at the pace of an oak growing out of rock. Just when you think you’ve got a deal worked out, a frequent complaint goes, Duncan finds one more thing to discuss. Clearly in the Senate’s top tier, he has stood for several sessions on the brink of joining the ranks of role-model legislators whose wisdom and propriety serve as a beacon to others. He’s not there yet, but it shouldn’t be too much longer.