When they’re not at the Capitol, the 181 members of the Texas Legislature may be cotton farmers, lawyers, realtors, or like Leticia Van de Putte, pharmacists. But on the second Tuesday in January in odd-numbered years, they enter a political twilight zone in which they abandon the reassuring routine of daily life for an erratic existence with its own unique language, customs, and terrain. When they step through the Capitol’s massive oak doors, fawning lobbyists descend upon them, eager and ambitious staff members perch at their elbows, and colleagues offer howdies and presses of the flesh. Imagine more than four months of mind-numbing committee meetings, intense floor debates, and uninspired take-out food; then add to that the intense pressure of the final few weeks, when the decisions you face can make or break your career and your reputation. Even veteran lawmakers find the experience daunting and draining. For a freshman, it can be overwhelming. This is the story of 46-year-old Van de Putte’s first session as a Texas senator. To get a close-up view of the experience, I observed her in her office, at committee meetings, during floor debates, and at luncheons and parties. A Hispanic Democrat from San Antonio, Van de Putte is an indefatigable mother of six. (Her husband, Pete, owns a flag-manufacturing company.) Although she is a freshman, she is no political novice: For the past ten years, she has served in the state House of Representatives. But the Senate, she knows, is a different place. In the House, she was one of 150 members. In the Senate, she is one of 31. The distance between the two chambers is just a few steps across the Capitol rotunda, but in power, prestige, and workload, they are light-years apart.
Van de Putte’s first job is to get to know the thirty other senators, sixteen of whom are Republicans. By Senate tradition, bills are debated on the floor only by a vote of two thirds of the members present. The “two-thirds rule” means that most of the work of the Senate takes place in private conversations. Senators lobby each other until they win the 21 votes needed to bring a bill to the floor or the 11 needed to kill it. Van de Putte cannot be effective unless she forges personal relationships with each of her colleagues—and unless she strikes the right balance between getting along and getting her work done.
Van de Putte’s office is in “the hole,” the inelegant nickname given the underground complex of offices attached to the Capitol. It’s decorated in an eclectic style reflecting its owner’s irreverent personality. A life-size cardboard cutout of Elvis stands in the corner. Ruffled pillows soften a leather couch. A painting of a Hispanic mother and child hangs over her desk. Family photos clutter the bookshelves and tables.It’s not yet nine in the morning, and Van de Putte is signing a stack of letters as her communications director, Deborah Travieso, reads aloud a handful of invitations. One gets nixed immediately: “Don’t schedule me for anything that weekend—my brother is getting married.” Activity ceases when her husband calls. Their brief but friendly exchange is an essential element of her day; by the end of the session, it will be a staple of office jokes. A staff member laughs: “Pete will call in and we’ll say, ‘And who are you with?’”
Since it’s early in the session, Van de Putte still has time to meet with people who drop by her office. Democracy comes to life each time the door swings open: There are leather-clad bikers who are unhappy that the state’s open-container law does not exempt alcohol carried in motorcycle saddlebags, uniformed prison guards seeking more pay, and professionally attired lobbyists representing teachers. Session PlayerVan de Putte will also meet with representatives of San Antonio-based Communities Organized for Public Service ( COPS) and Metro Alliance about the better jobs bill, her number one priority of the session. The bill would allow cities to use part of their sales tax revenue for job-training programs. Van de Putte worries that some business groups may oppose it, but right now it’s the bill’s supporters who are proving troublesome. About a dozen are waiting for her in a conference room, unhappy with a provision setting up a separate city corporation to dispense funds; they’d rather have the city council—where they have direct influence—making the decisions. Van de Putte expects, however, that some lawmakers will view the COPS/Metro version as a private slush fund for city officials.”I know what I have to do to get it through the Senate,” she tells the group patiently. Emphasizing her desire to file the bill quickly, she explains the political realities. “You have to understand that on April 1, we’re dead. We’re in a redistricting year.” As everyone around the Capitol knows, the issue of redistricting—drawing new boundary lines determining where politicians must seek election—will consume the session.
Van de Putte serves on the business and Commerce committee, which, a few days ago, held its first meeting of the session in Spanish to emphasize the importance of relationships with Spanish-speaking countries to the Texas economy. For Van de Putte, whose maiden name is San Miguel, the meeting brought back a flood of childhood memories. “When I was eight, I was sent home from school in San Antonio for speaking Spanish,” she recalls. “Such a turnaround to be in that committee in the state capitol speaking Spanish.”The job of state senator also requires fluency in complex issues. Today she’ll have meetings about local courts, gubernatorial appointments, child-support collection, the state’s environmental agency, and the San Antonio Water System. Between appointments, she signs letters to her constituents and reviews her calendar. Travieso mentions that she has reserved the evening of February 14 for Van de Putte to spend with her husband. Van de Putte rolls her eyes. “Yeah, right,” she says. “My husband, who once gave me a can opener for Valentine’s Day.” She and Travieso dissolve in paroxysms of