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Governor George W. Bush. Explaining at a pre-session gridiron dinner how he had turned a deaf ear to his wife’s entreaties that he purchase new formal wear for the event, Bush said he told her, “Read my lips. No new tuxes.”
The legislative leadership team had a lot more on their minds this session than their own programs. Governor George W. Bush is moving ahead to a possible presidential race in 2000. Speaker Pete Laney is moving ahead to the 1998 elections to find out whether the Democrats will remain in control of the House. And Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock is just moving on. Here’s how the session affected their travels.
Going. Bush exercised leadership—but so did the Pied Piper of Hamelin. At first, everybody lined up to follow his call for property-tax relief. But at the end of the session they were singing a different tune. Somehow, while Bush controlled the agenda, he lost control of the rhetoric, and his tax-relief plan kept getting described, inaccurately but insidiously, as a tax increase. In the end he can claim to have achieved a billion-dollar tax cut, which would have been a major accomplishment had he not raised expectations far higher. The rest of his legislative program was a mixture of modest successes and outright failures. He still seems to be a shoo-in for reelection in 1998, but he gave his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination plenty of ammunition to use against him—which is another way of saying that Bush may be out of step with the most vocal element of his own party.
Going. Laney’s management of the House is so artful that it’s next to invisible, which is just the way he likes it. An old-style rural conservative who is suspicious of major change, he uses committee appointments and strict deadlines for passing bills to predestine the course of a session, then sits back and watches it all happen. His naming of a high-proﬁle special committee to hear the governor’s tax-relief plan lent weight to the issue and assured that it would pass the House. But all his wiles inside the Capitol may not be able to prevent Republicans from winning enough seats to elect their own Speaker in 1999.
Gone. Bullock’s detachment from the session should have been a clue to his intention to end his forty-year political career. He seldom presided over the Senate, he shied away from the property-tax fight, and he threw his weight behind only one issue, water, which ended up as much ado about nothing. He was the first to see the change in the entire Senate brought about by the presence of a Republican majority—a decentralization of power, a heightened emphasis on politics and ideology, a reluctance to address big issues, and the lack of commitment to a place called Texas; in short, the opposite of everything Bullock stands for. His interest in the present waned and was replaced by an interest in the past, namely, the establishment of a state historical museum that one day, no doubt, will bear his name.
Representative Warren Chisum, Republican, Pampa. After landing on the Worst list for the past two sessions, a reformed Chisum learned how to pick his targets as the House’s best conservative watchdog. He exposed raids on the state treasury and attempts to expand bureaucracy. A valuable member of the special committee on property-tax relief, his wit helped put difficult matters in perspective, as when he described a school-finance plan as getting rid of Robin Hood and bringing in Jesse James. With two weeks to go, he looked like a cinch for the Best list. Then, unaccountably, the good Chisum vanished, to be replaced by the bad Chisum, as he toadied for the tobacco lobby and tried to force a vote on his bill opposing recognition of same-sex marriages. It was nice while it lasted.
On the Bubble
Kim Brimer, Republican, Arlington
Garnet Coleman, Democrat, Houston
John Smithee, Republican, Amarillo
Senator Buster Brown, Republican, Lake Jackson
Scott Hochberg, Democrat, Houston
Glen Maxey, Democrat, Austin
David Swinford, Republican, Dumas
Leticia Van de Putte, Democrat, San Antonio
Craig Eiland, Democrat, Galveston
Kyle Janek, Republican, Houston
Senator Royce West, Democrat, Dallas
Rookies of the Year
The Senate freshman class. Just when it desperately needed an infusion of talent, the Senate got six rookies who came ready to play. Five are Republicans: John Carona of Dallas, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, and Steve Ogden of Bryan are all former House members, and Jon Lindsay is a former Harris County judge. Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso was the lone Democrat. Brightest stars: Duncan and Shapleigh. Not quite so bright: Ogden, who was slow to figure out that senators don’t tolerate too-frequent questioning and purely symbolic negative votes.
Representative Kyle Janek. Everyone wondered why the sophomore Houston Republican, a rising House star, spent so much time attending the property tax–relief hearings in a distant underground room even though he wasn’t a member of the committee. He was there, it turned out, with a proposal of his own—not about taxes, but about marriage, to committee clerk Shannon Riddle. He took her to the outside catwalk of the Capitol dome one night, where he popped a champagne cork and the question. She voted aye.
Representative Patricia Gray, Democrat, Galveston. A member of the Best list in 1995, she found herself on the hot seat this session as the chair of the committee working on a controversial package of tort reform bills. When she refused to rubber-stamp them, she was subjected to intense pressure and threatened with retaliation in the next election. Said Gray: “I have a sign in my office back home that reads ‘You will get your fifteen minutes of fame, but you will not enjoy it.’”
Bull of the Brazos
Representative Mark Stiles, Democrat, Beaumont. Sometimes a legislator defies classification. Words like “best” and “worst” are too ordinary to fit. So it was with the original Bull of the Brazos, a longtime state senator from Bryan named Bill Moore. So it is with Mark Stiles. It is unjust to reward him, unfair to censure him, impossible to ignore him. His position as the chairman of the House Calendars Committee gives him life-or-death power over legislation, which he uses magnanimously or maliciously, depending upon whom you talk to, and when and whether the door is closed and the keyhole sealed.
When the Laney team needs votes, he is the enforcer who twists arms, pats backs, and massages egos. He would rather be more loved than feared, but not too much more. He can display great statewide vision, as when he went to bat for Governor Bush’s property tax–relief plan, or he can be shamelessly parochial, as when he insisted on blocking the interbasin transfer of water (an episode that included a very public Stiles temper tantrum). He has learned to poke fun at his image as a bully, but when he is doing battle over a big issue (he gave instant credibility to deregulating electricity by sponsoring it), he is all business. If our award were a trophy, the inscription on it would be one that was first applied to the Irish patriot and villain, Daniel O’Connell: “The only way to deal with such a man is to hang him up and erect a statue to him under the gallows.”