Session Player

What did San Antonio Democrat Leticia Van De Putte learn in her first go around as a state senator? That victories are hard-won and compromise is inevitable. That just because she's a legislator she doesn't stop being a wife and a mother.

July 2001By Comments

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.

Week One

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.

Week Three

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.

Week Four

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 laughter recounting the time Pete surprised her with a romantic getaway . . . to College Station. On Van de Putte's desk, though, is a new picture she has signed for her husband. It reads "My darling, your love and support make my job as senator possible. You are the center of our family and the sole occupant of my heart."

Week Five

The office is buzzing about a party the night before: the American Heart Association dance, which kept lawmakers and staff members out late. "You know it's a weird session when you see Bivins and Senfronia dancing," Van de Putte says, laughing. Teel Bivins is an Anglo, conservative, Republican senator from a wealthy Amarillo family; Senfronia Thompson is an African American, liberal, Democratic representative from Houston.In a nearby conference room, the COPS/ Metro folks are assembled again, still unhappy with her version of the better jobs bill. She tries again to explain her position and then offers a compromise: "Knowing your strong feelings, we put in a provision that the council could appoint themselves to the corporation. We left it as an option." The bill's House sponsor, Democratic representative Ruth McClendon of San Antonio, warns of what will happen if the bill contains the provision COPS/Metro wants. "It will be dead," she says, "and you will never know who killed it." Van de Putte reminds them that she shares their goals: "Let's not let perfection be the enemy of the good. It will kill this bill." Eventually they reach a deal.

Back in the office, a group of San Antonio high school students delivers speeches to Van de Putte in favor of anti-tobacco education. The kids fidget; some of them dig in the bowl of Tootsie Rolls on a secretary's desk. Van de Putte praises them for not smoking. "You guys have more influence over your friends than your teachers do, so you need to look out for each other," she tells them. It's the mom inside the senator talking.

Sometimes the roles blur. Her home life sounds as if it's managed like a finely tuned political machine. "Everybody has two magnets on the refrigerator: one for requests and things I need to sign or see. The other is for soccer schedules and things like that. And there is a three-month-at-a-glance calendar, color-coded for all of the kids. And I have a list: If you need it, put it on the list; otherwise it doesn't get bought." Van de Putte's mom, sisters, and sisters-in-law provide backup. Still, she confesses, "We screw up a lot."

Week Nine

After all the haggling, phone calls, and meetings, the better jobs bill passes the Senate. Van de Putte is philosophical: "I've been through potty training six times. It was always tough. You learn to expect mistakes. "

Week Ten

Bills are emerging from committee, so Van de Putte must prepare for votes on the Senate floor. Today, her staff members will present short briefings on issues that will be heard, arming her with questions and amendments. Her effectiveness depends largely on how well these staffers do their job. It's impossible for a senator to read every line of every bill, but knowledgeable aides can spot nuances and implications that would otherwise be missed. But first, Van de Putte must consult Democratic senator Judith Zaffirini of Laredo on a pressing matter: What is she wearing? It's Republican Women's Day, when women in the GOP wear red. Van de Putte wants to confirm a high-level compromise worked out the previous night. "We decided to go halfway there," she says. She and Zaffirini will wear red blouses to the Senate floor. When they arrive, the Senate gallery is a sea of red. As Republican senator Florence Shapiro of Plano makes a round of introductions, Zaffirini and Van de Putte show off crimson collars peeking from under their suit jackets. Their simple gesture of goodwill toward the Republican women will go a long way toward developing trust with their colleagues."

Week Twelve

Somebody put us on overdrive," Van de Putte says in wonder. Two of her committees are meeting simultaneously, so she's making one of many long treks—easily the length of a couple of city blocks—between the committee room behind the Senate chamber and one in the underground extension. She's wearing hot-pink, open-toed high heels, seemingly not the wisest choice for a high-mileage day. "Aren't they great?" she asks. "Today I said, 'What the hell. I want to look like a San Antonio girl getting ready for Fiesta.' These are my Hoochie-Mama shoes. All of us have a little Hoochie-Mama in us, and mine came out today."In the Education committee, chairman Teel Bivins quickly and methodically calls for votes on all of the bills that witnesses have testified on that day. Since Van de Putte hasn't been there the whole time, her legislative assistant, David Romo, whispers explanations of bills heard in her absence. Finally, she gives up. "I'm sorry. I don't know which bill we are on," she says.

After her committee meetings, she joins a Hispanic Caucus discussion about redistricting. Then she meets with lobbyists for a briefing on a telecommunications bill. She doesn't leave the office until nine-thirty—a long day for someone in Hoochie-Mama shoes.

Week Thirteen

To honor a San Antonio police officer killed in the line of duty, a freshman House member filed a bill increasing penalties for criminals who seize a police officer's weapon. Van de Putte, the Senate sponsor, sits at the committee witness table, presenting the bill to skeptical members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Democratic senator Royce West of Dallas, in particular, isn't sure the bill is needed, noting that cop killers already are eligible for the death penalty. Other laws condemn assaulting police officers, he points out. As the questions become more uncomfortable, Van de Putte writes West a short note, kisses the bottom (she's wearing a bright rose lipstick), and passes it to him. He reads the note, strokes his chin, and smiles at her. She smiles back sweetly. He stops asking questions. Later, she acknowledges that her note asked him to knock it off—in unprintable language.

Week Sixteen

Red, white, and green helium-filled balloons hover over the ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel for the Senate Hispanic Caucus' Cinco de Mayo celebration. After a full day at the Capitol, Van de Putte twirls around the dance floor with a San Antonio friend. When the tejano band stops playing, University of Texas System chancellor Dan Burck brings her a margarita—an important gesture. Van de Putte and other minority lawmakers, angered by a letter written by UT president Larry Faulkner on the university's record of hiring minority administrators, briefly held up the approval of the nominations of three new regents. In a series of meetings with UT officials, Van de Putte further emphasized her unhappiness by threatening to withhold her vote as a member of the Senate Education committee on a proposed tuition hike. She obviously has gotten their attention. The party is a nice break in what turns out to be an exhausting week: In a few days the Senate will pass the hate crimes bill following an emotionally draining debate. It's after nine o'clock before she reaches the Austin apartment she shares with four female staffers. Despite the occupants' range of ages—from 28 to almost 60—the apartment feels like a college dormitory room. Half a dozen issues of Cosmopolitan are stacked on the coffee table. A pictorial shrine to Texas A&M, the youngest roommate's alma mater, fills another table in the living room. The odd living arrangement works because of the firm house rules: Shoptalk is allowed only around a tiny breakfast table, and a closed bedroom door means "Do Not Disturb." By nine-thirty, the women are in nightgowns and ready for bed—just as soon as Law and Order is over.

Week Seventeen

Every session, tension erupts between the House and the Senate as lawmakers from both chambers watch their bills die from inaction. Today House members are complaining publicly that some senators are taking off early to travel to Dallas for a San Antonio Spurs-Dallas Mavericks playoff game. Van de Putte has a different complaint: "They're going and they didn't tell me? I wanna go." In fact, several days earlier, she took a group of senators to the Spurs-Mavericks game in San Antonio, arranging for a bus and the use of Southwestern Bell's skybox at the Alamodome. Friday is the last day for Senate committees to vote on bills that have already passed the House. The previous night, the House passed dozens of bills, and now—since bills must be approved by both chambers—they must win Senate committee approval in one day or they will all die. Every bill is in jeopardy in this crush, since Senate rules allow a lawmaker to place a "tag"—a 24-hour hold—on any bill. Van de Putte has joked to her fellow senators that she is running a two-for-one special: She'll tag two of their House bills for every one of hers that gets tagged. By the end of the day, she has lost only 8 of 58 House bills she's carrying in the Senate.

Week Twenty

The rest of may rushes by in a blur. Despite all the hype, the Senate spends little time on redistricting before a coalition of Republicans blocks the bill from consideration on the floor. But for Van de Putte, the session has been productive. The seeds planted early on are producing a good yield: The better jobs bill sailed through the House and Senate, and Governor Rick Perry may come to San Antonio for a bill-signing ceremony. She's especially proud that she killed a bill she felt was hostile to injured workers by rounding up ten votes to prevent its debate on the Senate floor. In the House, she notes, she would have had to rally opposition during debate by asking questions from the back microphone.Van de Putte served on the conference committee to negotiate a compromise about teacher health insurance. There, she made sure that children of school employees eligible for low-cost federally funded health insurance didn't lose their benefits because of their parents' new health package. Reflecting on the previous four and a half months, she says she was pleasantly surprised how much a first-term senator could accomplish. "If you put in an effort here—because you are one of only thirty-one—you are going to have an impact," she says.

It's late on Friday, three days before adjournment. Van de Putte is closely watching the clock in the Senate chamber. She has to get home in time to help her daughter Isabella prepare for her eighth-grade graduation. "I wasn't there to get the dress," she says, with clear regret. She worries that Isabella "doesn't feel special." Already, she's looking forward to Tuesday afternoon, when she will take her staff out on a party boat on Lake Travis to celebrate the end of the session. Mentally, she is easing back into her other life. On Tuesday's boat ride, she has decided, "Isabella will be the only one from the family I take along."

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